Prisons: Dangerous for Whom?

Dr. David Scott, the Open University and Professor Joe Sim, Liverpool John Moores University

Prison officers have been in dispute with successive governments since 1972 when the Prison Officers Association (POA) threatened a national strike unless staffing levels at HMP Gartree were increased. Two inter-related themes have dominated these disputes since then: the control of prisons and staff safety. In terms of the first theme, the issue for the POA, contrary to their public pronouncements, has not been about prisoners controlling prisons. This is a myth. In the vast majority of prisons, prison officers remain firmly in control. Rather, the POA has always been concerned with outsiders – probation officers, social workers, academics, managers, and ‘bean counters’ – coming into prisons, exposing the authoritarian use of their discretion and calling them to account.

Alternative Explanations

In terms of the dangers prison staff face, the picture is much more complex than the POA and the media suggest. First, eight prison officers have been murdered since 1850.  It is 53 years since the last prison officer in England and Wales was killed by a prisoner. In contrast, according to the charity INQUEST, 4,640 prisoners have died in prison since 1990, 2,075 of these deaths were self-inflicted. Ministry of Justice figures show that up to March 2018, there were 467 incidents of self-harm per 1,000 male prisoners, a rise of 14% over the year. In women’s prisons, the rate was 2,244 incidents per 1000 prisoners, a rise of 24%. So whose safety counts in prison?

Second, the cuts have been blamed for the rise in violence. Clearly they are an issue. However, the pre-cuts prison was also a place of danger for prisoners. Between 1990 and 2010, according to INQUEST’s data, there were nearly 2,500 deaths, 1,404 of them self-inflicted. Furthermore, the focus on the cuts does not explain the lack of safety for prisoners, and the appalling regime, in prisons such as Liverpool which was well-staffed. The POA has highlighted the lack of staff safety for decades when prisons were full of experienced staff, so their argument about the cuts to these staff also does not add up. The cuts might have intensified the crisis, they have not caused it.

Third, what about the dangers prison staff face compared with other occupations? In 1923, there were similar claims about violence against them after an officer was murdered. However, a committee of inquiry concluded that prison work was less dangerous than the work done by railway workers, miners, quarry workers, police officers and factory workers. In 1919, another official inquiry into the conditions of service for prison officers, observed that ‘the life of a warder is more dreary than that of a policeman, but not so dangerous’. Historically, compared with other occupations, prison work has been relatively safe and this remains true today.  According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2017-18, 144 workers were killed in Great Britain in different occupations including construction, agriculture and manufacturing. The dangers prison officers face compared with other occupations becomes even more problematic when considered against the fact that the data from the HSE seriously underestimates the actual number of workplace fatalities in the country.

Fourth, the recording of prison assaults has changed. Like the recording of crime, such changes can have an impact on what appears to be an increase in assaults or crime. In April 2017, there was a change which simplified how incidents involving staff were recorded. According to the Ministry of Justice, this, in turn, ‘simplified how incidents involving staff are identified, however, it is possible this has increased the recording of incidents’. There have also been incidents in the past when claims by prison officers about the rate of prisoner violence have been questioned. A prison officer had claims published in both The Times and the Civil Service Gazette in 1882 that prison staff at Chatham Prison were victims of assaults with ‘fists, stones and bricks’ virtually on a daily basis.  Yet, when these claims were investigated by the Prison Directors, they found that there had been two serious assaults in the year and twelve trivial cases, consisting merely in physically resisting the officer’.

Fifth, the health and safety of prison officers can also be compromised by factors totally unrelated to assaults by prisoners. Musculoskeletal problems, sickness, stress, bullying by managers, anxiety and depression have also been found to contribute to days lost at work. Indeed, the National Audit Office (NAO) pointed out in 1999 that sickness arising from accidents at 5% and assaults at 2% ‘represented a small proportion’ of absences from work among prison officers. In 2004, the NAO also noted the number of days lost as a result of depression, anxiety, stress and nervous debility rose by 53% from 116,744 days lost in 1999-00 to 178,625 days lost in 2002-03. The number of days lost as a result of accidents rose from 824 to 1201 while the number of days lost as a result of assaults increased from 397 to 693.

This issue also has a long history.  A report in 1919 observed that prison officer retirements ‘on the grounds of ill-health are abnormally numerous’. For all of the POA’s well-publicised concerns about the health and safety of its members, these issues, on the few occasions they are mentioned, come a long way behind the endless focus on assaults on staff. This is not an argument for saying assaults are unimportant. However, it is to say that assaults need to be put into a broader perspective in relation to what the prison does. It is the dehumanizing prison environment, rather than pathologically violent prisoners, which presents the greatest threat to the physical, psychological and emotional well-being of prison staff.

Finally, there is the question of staff on prisoner violence.  Official reports and inquiries have consistently denied the extent of prison officer violence. The famous Gladstone Report of 1895 recognised that there could be under-reporting of prison officer assaults, noting that ‘there may be many individual cases of hardship in which the prisoners, for obviously possible reasons, are afraid or unwilling to complain’. Yet the same report repeated the claims made in a number of official reports and commissions before and since, namely that if there is a problem, there cannot be ‘any ground for the charge other than the general à priori argument that in a large body of men there must be some black sheep’.  However, accounts by prisoners, and prison officers themselves, dispute the idea that prison officer violence is caused by individual ‘bad apples’ working in state institutions which are essentially benevolent, caring and humane.

Insider Accounts

Prisoners’ accounts of life inside have consistently testified to their often-brutal treatment at the hands of state servants since these accounts emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. However, they have also been consistently dismissed, their credibility tarnished by the authors’ ascribed status as convicted criminals. And yet, prisoners’ accounts have proved to be true when initially dismissed, for example, in the beatings experienced by prisoners after the demonstration at Hull prison in 1976, particularly black and Irish prisoners. Even if the state’s ‘truth’ about prisoners’ accounts was correct, the accounts by prison officers themselves, provide clear evidence that violence against prisoners, and their endless degradation, is more common and widespread than is officially recognized.

The autobiographies of prison officers reveal not only the authoritarian nature of the staff culture but also a number of other systemic issues, such as the lack of concern for the health and safety of prisoners and the derogatory language used to dehumanise them. One officer described having to ‘deal with a staggering array of crackheads, smackheads, drug dealers, arse-kickers, pimps, nonces, time-wasters and toe-rags’.  As for violence against prisoners, he noted  that ‘the general understanding is that if a con pisses off a screw, then the officer will give him a good kicking’.

Then there are the systemic issues of prison officers generating violent confrontations and / or  using ‘Control and Restraint’ techniques ‘to inflict as much pain as possible to inmates’; sanctioning prisoner on prisoner violence; ferociously abusing prisoners after disturbances; and blaming prisoners for violence:

We then overheard them discussing with a senior officer which one would claim on their report that the inmate had attacked them first and therefore had to be restrained. I stood there and could not believe what I had just heard, especially as I knew how calculated the attack was. … I am ashamed to admit it, whilst I never physically assaulted an inmate in such a way I did provide backup stories to help cover other officers.  This was not out of choice but rather through peer pressure, and it was the pressure to perpetrate such lies that contributed to my reasons for resigning from the service.

Finally, there is the largely hidden but systemic issue of legitimating violence against prisoners, where according to one account ‘some of the most unruly women would purposely pick a quarrel with an officer and force her to call for assistance. She would then struggle, kick and scratch, and eventually an officer from the men’s prison would be called in to assist her to the punishment cell’.

The Media

None of these systemic issues were discussed in the media during the most recent prison crisis. Rather, television and radio presenters uncritically disseminated the POA’s arguments. Their spokespersons, and serving and ex-prison officers, led the broadcasts, abetted by abject, ill-informed and extraordinarily leading questions by presenters who simply repeated the POA line on safety. The nadir was reached on Channel Four News in August. When asked ‘Do you feel safe, do your colleagues feel safe?’ a serving prison officer from Birmingham prison replied that ex-military personnel working in British prisons said they felt safer in Afghanistan and Iraq. The BBC proved no better on this occasion. Balance was totally compromised especially on the short, news items broadcast on the hour on Radio 4 where the only voices heard belonged to prison officers or their representatives.


The contemporary crisis in prisons is profound. However, it is not the first. There was a similar crisis 40 years ago where the same themes were prominent. Successive Conservative governments, in thrall to the POA, and hypocritical law and order crusades, did nothing. The result? The Strangeways (HMP Manchester) disturbance in 1990, the longest in British prison history. In government, the Labour Party was no better. Nor are their contemporary spokespersons on justice who are also in thrall to the POA, and to commonsensical, law and order discourses, while engaging in sheer political opportunism. The fact is that the crisis is too serious for such appalling posturing. If a future disaster is to be averted, politicians need to implement policies which will radically transform prisons and the wider criminal justice system. Given the puerile state of contemporary British politics, that seems to be too much to hope for in the current climate.

Thanks to Kym Atkinson, Keir Irwin-Rogers and Katie Tucker for their support with this blog.




Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

The Prison Inspectorate’s report on Birmingham prison was published in late August. It was the worst report the Inspectorate has issued since it began its work in 1981. There had been a ‘dramatic deterioration’ in the regime since the previous inspection 18 months earlier. The prison was in an ‘appalling state’. Against the four tests used to judge the health of individual prisons – safety, respect, purposeful activity and rehabilitation and release planning – the outcomes for prisoners were ‘poor…our lowest assessment rating’. This was only the second time an institution had received such a low rating and illustrated the ‘seriousness of my [the Chief Inspector’s] concerns.’ The regime’s corrosive toxicity was captured in one damning paragraph:

Communal areas in most wings were filthy. Rubbish had accumulated and had not been removed. There were widespread problems with insects, including cockroaches, as well as rats and other vermin. We saw evidence of bodily fluids left unattended, including blood and vomit. I saw a shower area where there was bloodstained clothing and a pool of blood that apparently had been there for two days next to numerous rat droppings. Many cells were cramped, poorly equipped and had damaged flooring or plasterwork. Most toilets were poorly screened, many were leaking and we saw cells with exposed electrics.

Three prisoners had killed themselves since the previous inspection and while the investigations were ‘not complete, early indications suggested significant concern about standards of care in the prison’. Prisoners in danger of self-harm ‘did not feel well cared for’. The conditions, lack of support, lack of purposeful activity and inconsistency added to the risks they faced:

Recorded levels of self-harm were lower than the last inspection and lower than in similar prisons, although we observed, and Listeners told us, that some incidents of self-harm were not recorded. Analysis of self-harm incidents at the monthly safer custody meeting was not good enough to identify patterns and trends which would inform action. The management of ACCT (case management of prisoners at risk of suicide or self-harm) procedures was poor in most cases. In many, care maps had not been completed and where they had, issues identified in assessments had not been included. Recorded contact was not sufficiently interactive and was often not complying with planned intervals…The action plan in response to PPO investigations [around self-inflicted deaths] was incomplete and not kept under review so some actions were not sustained. Investigations of serious incidents of self-harm were not sufficiently detailed and did not identify lessons learned. In our survey only 31% of prisoners said it was easy to speak with a Listener when they wanted to, which was significantly worse than similar prisons and Listeners told us that prisoners were often refused access to them (emphasis added).

The brittle structures supposedly in place to ensure a modicum of democratic accountability, and to protect prisoners, were contemptuously ignored allowing an institutionalised culture of immunity and impunity to prevail. Of the 70 recommendations made after the previous inspection, only 14 were achieved. None of the four main recommendations made was achieved.

Birmingham was not unique. Time and again, year after year, the state’s often-abject failure to learn lessons from incidents of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths has been forensically detailed by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), by coroners and by the charity INQUEST. Scandalously, in 2016/17 ‘around a third of prisons inspected…were not implementing or reinforcing PPO recommendations well enough, and they had all experienced self-inflicted deaths since previous inspections’.

Predatory hyper-masculinity dominated the daily regime. It legitimated and facilitated violence, bullying and intimidation; a relentless power structure that operated, without pity, within and between the cultures of staff and prisoners. The harrowing description of the humiliating treatment of a ‘clearly troubled man who was struggling to maintain personal hygiene’ provided chilling evidence of the debasing impact of this hyper-masculinity:

An offensive poster carrying the message ‘Say No to BO’ was stuck on his door, along with offensive comments on his cell card. We were told that on at least two occasions other prisoners put a nearby fire hose through his observation panel and ‘hosed him down’, soaking him and his cell. It took repeated interventions by the inspection team to have him moved to a place where his needs could be met. We struggle to understand how staff could have allowed this appalling bullying to take place (emphasis added).

In fact, it is not difficult to understand. The dominant discourses of bullying and intimidation favoured in official reports, and in the media, individualise what are systemic psychic and structural processes of masculinity which position prisoners and staff on the same merciless terrain of domination and subjugation. It is a power structure which flourishes not only in Birmingham but in nearly every male prison, is not contested and has devastating consequences, inside and outside of the prison walls.

Conditions were so bad that the Chief Inspector invoked the Urgent Notification protocol. This committed the Secretary of State for Justice to publicly respond to the report within 28 calendar days outlining how the regime would be improved in the short and long term.  He concluded with a damning assessment:

I was astounded that HMP Birmingham had been allowed to deteriorate so dramatically over the 18 months since the previous inspection. A factor in my decision to invoke the Urgent Notification process is that at present I can have no confidence in the ability of the prison to make improvements. There has clearly been an abject failure of contract management and delivery.

The Media Response

The media response to the report was predictable: a flurry of sanctimonious comments; lazy and sensationalist cherry picking; proposals for some limited action; and an overreliance on the views of prison officers who had a vested interest in defending the benevolent image of the prison’s staff. Then the story disappeared leaving prisoners to fester in fetid, blistering conditions.

This was particularly evident around the issue of safety. Despite the number of prisoners self-harming and killing themselves, safety became a question of prison officer safety. Endless media time, driven by the Prison Officers Association, was devoted to the assaults it was said staff endured. Prisoner safety was relegated and marginalised. The nadir was reached on Channel 4 News, a supposedly liberal broadcaster, the evening the report was published. Answering the presenter’s extraordinarily leading question ‘Do you feel safe, do your colleagues feel safe?’ a serving prison officer replied that ex-military personnel working in British prisons said they felt safer in Afghanistan and Iraq. Repeating the POA’s line that the prison should have been left in the public sector, thereby implying that the pre-privatised prison, contrary to all of the historical evidence, was a well-functioning, benevolent place, critical discussion about the report, the wider prison crisis and the role of the authoritarian staff culture in brutalising prisoners was closed down, a strategy ably helped by the abject nature of the questioning.

The BBC’s coverage was no better. The POA line, effectively unchallenged, dominated their radio and TV broadcasts which were built around a series of well-aired themes: the erosion of prison officer authority; the negative impact of theorists, academics, liberals and ‘bean counters’ on how the prison was run; the invisibility of management; the lack of staff control; drug taking; staff safety; the cuts to staff numbers; the loss of experienced staff; and, inevitably, the need to take the prison back under government control. Another low point was reached on BBC Radio 4 in its 2.00pm news broadcast on the day the report was published. The only voice heard was that of a prison officer. Similar themes were discussed on BBC 2’s Newsnight that night. In taking the line that it did, the media’s coverage moved the debate about the prison onto the safe terrain of staff cuts and drugs. Not for the first time, it left the real driving forces behind the crisis in Birmingham, and what should be done about it, unexplored and neglected.

The Labour Party’s Opportunism

The day following the report’s publication, the Guardian published an opinion piece pointedly titled ‘The government knew about horrific conditions at Birmingham prison but didn’t care’. Written by Lord Falconer, the former Labour Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, he outlined a predictable range of issues which, he argued, contributed to the crisis in the jail: ‘the courts sending many more violent prisoners to custody than previously; the pervasive effect of spice and other drugs in prison; and the deterioration of prisoner/prison officer ratios in private and public prisons alike’.

There were a number of problems with this piece. First, it ignored the failure of successive Labour governments to respond to the degrading treatment of prisoners. In March 2001, the Guardian reported on the prison’s filthy, appalling conditions and highlighted the plight of one prisoner with mental health needs who, for weeks, was denied a change of clothes. If Labour ministers knew, this was shameful. If they did not know then, scandalously, they failed in their duty of care towards him. Why did Labour respond in this way? Because they were in thrall to the asinine slogan of ‘tough on [working class] crime, tough on the causes of [working class] crime’.

Second, like the POA, Falconer focussed on the cuts to staff numbers, especially the cuts to experienced staff. However, the cuts did not cause the regime to become what it was; they intensified the formal and informal processes of punishment, degradation and humiliation which have long been part of Birmingham’s culture. He failed to consider the dire state of the prison under Labour when staff numbers, experienced and otherwise, were stable and failed to explain how an increase in these numbers would defuse the situation especially when a well-staffed prison like Liverpool was the worst prison ever inspected by the Inspectorate until they went to Birmingham.

Third, Falconer, and other Labour spokespersons, opportunistically focussed on the fact that the prison had been privatised. The politics and morality of privatising prisons is clearly an issue. In Birmingham, G4S investors required a profit margin of 20% which meant that the prison’s running costs had to fall by 40% when the company assumed responsibility for the institution (Private Eye, 2018). However, he failed to mention the Labour Party’s unprincipled U-turn on privatising prisons. In opposition they were against it. From 1997, in office, they supported it.

Finally, he failed to consider the prison’s fearsome reputation amongst prisoners which was established as far back as 1853 when they experienced routine abuse, gross neglect and starvation when they were denied food if they failed to fulfil set tasks. In 1975, under Labour, the Birmingham Six, despite being innocent, ‘ran the gauntlet of a lynch mob of prison officers; by the end the teeth of two of the men and the blood of all covered the reception area; the evidence essential to establish in the future that the “confessions” in police custody had been beaten out of them had been obliterated’. In 1980, under the Conservatives, an inquest jury found that Barry Prosser had been unlawfully killed. He was on remand for allegedly causing damage to a door handle worth £1.62. His injuries included a burst stomach and oesophagus. After a series of legal twists and turns, three prison officers were found not guilty of his murder. In February 2010, 13 years into a Labour government, the Inspectorate pointed to the failure to implement recommendations made in a previous inspection. Out of the 146 made, only 50 were achieved, while 96 were either partially achieved (36) or not achieved at all (60)

Facing the Future

Birmingham treated the prisoners with ‘malign neglect’. It was a site of purgatorial punishment where misery, terror, trauma, humiliation, degradation and institutionalised indifference were normalised. Breaking the prisoners was not based on unconscious acts carried out by irrational, individual ‘bad apples’ working inside the state. It was based on rational thought processes, and systematic actions, embedded in the formal and informal occupational culture of the staff and prison service managers. What happened in the prison was a state crime, involving acts of omission and commission.

It was not a prison filled with dangerous psychopaths but was a local prison through which 500 new prisoners passed each month who, on average, served six weeks in the institution. Despite some honourable exceptions, it was a prison without pity housing a population who had a range of vulnerabilities which made them all potentially susceptible to self-harm and self-inflicted death. The clear message from the report was that, as holistic, human beings, their lives mattered less than the lives of the allegedly law-abiding majority on the outside or the demands of a dividend-obsessed company where the warped sanctification of profit trumped the provision of decent conditions and the sanctity of life itself.  And yet, nearly a month after the Chief Inspector reported, the Chair of the Justice Committee wrote to the Prisons Minister indicating that members remained ‘deeply concerned about the conditions in which some prisoners are living. It is especially worrying that it falls again to the Chief Inspector to shine a light on ongoing problems which should have been raised and resolved through normal reporting and oversight mechanisms long before his visit’.

Given the abject state of the institution, and other male prisons such as Liverpool, Exeter and Nottingham, as well as the obscene levels of self-harm in women’s prisons, it is too glib to call for resignations, however symbolic, which was the line taken by the Prison Officers Association. Resignations will do nothing to solve the crisis, make the system accountable or protect prisoners. Instead, they individualise the problem, leave the structures of unaccountable power untouched and, in this case, distract attention away from an authoritarian staff culture which degrades not only prisoners but those staff, pejoratively labelled as ‘care bears’, trying to do a decent job in extraordinarily indecent circumstances. The resignation of Amber Rudd, over the Windrush scandal, demanded by a politically opportunistic Labour front bench, is a telling example of how individual resignations can have little or no effect or indeed the opposite effect intended.

The crisis in Birmingham, and other prisons, will only be resolved by radically transforming prisons and the wider criminal justice system: fundamentally reappraising and changing the ineffectual, hard-line sentencing policies operating in the courts; drastically reducing the prison population; ending the prison building programme; challenging the state’s narrow and hypocritical definition of crime through developing social policies around safety which offer protection from the depredations of the powerful and the social harms they generate; and embedding structures of democratic accountability thereby removing the outrageous culture of immunity and impunity operating within prisons, and the state more generally.

Unless these changes are implemented, Birmingham will not be the last prison scandal. The difference next time might just be the scale of the response from prisoners. The furious demonstration at the prison in 2016 could be the prelude to something more profound if the government follows the same jagged path that has brought us to this lamentable point. Politicians and state servants cannot say they have not been warned about the potentially devastating consequences of their shocking complacency and indifference towards a regime which psychologically and physically pulverised the human beings supposedly in its care.

Thanks to Kym Atkinson and Katie Tucker for their support with this blog.



Private Eye (2018) Profits of Doom. September, 147724/8-6-09-2018

Nottingham and Exeter Prisons: Death, Danger and Dehumanisation

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

The record of failure, as set out in this report, cannot be allowed to continue. For too long prisoners have been held in a dangerous, drug-ridden jail. My fear, which may prove to be unfounded, is that some could face it no longer and took their own lives.

So said Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons in a report published on 16th May following an inspection of Nottingham, a prison which contained just over 1000 adult and young adult prisoners, 21% of whom were from black and ethnic minority groups. This inspection followed the Inspectorate’s devastating report on Liverpool prison, published in January 2018, which described conditions as the worst they had seen in nearly four decades of inspections.

Like an earlier inspection conducted in 2016, the latest inspection had been announced in advance which, theoretically, gave prison managers the time and space to make the necessary improvements recommended by the Inspectorate in previous reports. However, this did not happen. It was ‘extraordinary’ the Chief Inspector said, ‘that over the course of….three inspections the prison had consistently failed to achieve standards that were sufficient in any of our four tests of a healthy prison.’

The report was scathing about prisoner safety and the lack of accountability of prison staff for their actions, or rather their lack of action in this area. The situation was so bad that the Chief Inspector issued his first ever Urgent Notification Notice which means that the Secretary of State has to take personal and public responsibility for improving a prison with serious problems. In this case, as INQUEST noted, he needed to intervene given the ‘fundamentally unsafe’ nature of the regime.

Safety Last

The level of self-harm and self-inflicted deaths, the report noted, was ‘both tragic and appalling’. Since 2016, 8 prisoners had killed themselves while a ninth was believed to have killed himself after the inspection. Again, repeated criticisms relating to these deaths from the Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) ‘had not been adequately addressed’ including the failure to promptly answer cell call bells which was ‘unacceptable and in some cases compromised safety’.

In the six months prior to the inspection, there were 344 incidents of self-harm, approximately 2 per day. A key element in the debate about reducing self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in prisons concerns the first-night experience of prisoners. There is a correlation between how good or bad this experience is and self-harm and self-inflicted death.  However, the first night experience of the prisoners in Nottingham was dire:

In our full survey, 82% of prisoners indicated that their first night cell was dirty or very dirty….94% of prisoners said they had problems when they first arrived, 50% said they felt depressed and a quarter suicidal…40% of prisoners said they did not feel safe on their first night at Nottingham. Newly arrived vulnerable prisoners were also accommodated on D Wing on the top landing. Only 36% of vulnerable prisoners said they felt safe on their first night….Overall, vulnerable prisoners had a diminished experience.

As the report noted, ‘[w]e can recall only one other occasion when we have judged safety in a prison to be poor following three consecutive inspections’.

Ignoring Recommendations

This abject situation was compounded by the institutionalised indifference towards implementing recommendations from previous inspections designed to ensure that the prison, and its workers, were accountable for their actions. Out of 48 recommendations made previously, 12 (25%) were achieved, 13 (27%) were partially achieved and 23 (48%) were not achieved. More specifically, in the key area of safety, out of the 13 recommendations made, 2 (15%) were achieved, 3 (14%) were partially achieved and, scandalously, 8 (61%) were not achieved. For the Chief Inspector, ‘[a} concern, and sadly no surprise to me, was the very poor response of the prison to the recommendations we made in 2016’.

The Use of Force

The use of force, and the failure to account for its use by prison staff, was also a systemic problem. The Inspectorate found that ‘force was used frequently and governance was weak’. Use of force reports remained incomplete or they were ‘often poor’. Prisoners described incidents ‘in which they felt force was unjustified or excessive’. The prison’s data base was unreliable while ‘video footage of incidents was not reviewed’. Shockingly, the prison could not assure the Inspectorate ‘that force was always used as a last resort or proportionately. We were not confident that a nurse was always present during planned use of force incidents’.

There had been 491 use of force incidents in the six months before the inspection, around 2 per day, ‘which was very high’. Again paperwork was left unfinished so that ‘[o]f 195 use of force incidents that occurred between October and November 2017, only 85 supervisor reports had been submitted’. In December 2017 alone, there were 61 violent incidents. Paperwork had been received for only 17 (28%) of these cases which meant that ‘opportunities to identify patterns and trends and to learn lessons were missed’. This is a serious indictment of the regime’s non-compliance with even the most rudimentary demands for democratic accountability and control. Crucially, from the perspective of the prisoners, the detrimental impact was clear:

Our concerns were heightened by prisoners’ many allegations which raised concerns that force was sometimes unjustified and excessive. We identified incidents in which batons had been drawn and used, but which had not been recorded on the prison’s database. We were not confident that nurses were always present during planned use of force incidents or that they always saw men after spontaneous incidents. Forms reporting an injury to a prisoner were often missing (emphasis added).

Exeter Prison

Two weeks after the report on Nottingham, the Chief Inspector published another damning report on Exeter prison. Once again, he invoked the Urgent Notification process. This was not surprising given the abject state of the prison and the desperate nature of the regime. Safety received the lowest possible grade of ‘poor’. There had been six self-inflicted deaths in the prison since the previous inspection in August 2016, five of which occurred in 2017. In the previous six months, self harm was ‘running at a higher rate than in any similar prison. It has risen by 40% since our last inspection’.

Punishing the Vulnerable

The Inspectorate noted that they ‘saw many examples of a lack of care for vulnerable prisoners which, given the recent tragic events in the prison, were symptomatic of a lack of empathy and understanding of the factors that contribute to suicide and self harm’ (emphasis added). This lack of sympathy, alongside ‘unacceptably poor’ living conditions, made the regime toxic for many prisoners.

As with Liverpool and Nottingham, official recommendations for reforming the prison had been effectively ignored. Of the 14 recommendations made in the previous inspection around safety, only three had been fully achieved while the two main recommendations had not been achieved.

Despite the high levels of prisoner vulnerability, the report noted that it was ‘shocking to see the way in which cell bells were routinely ignored by staff’. This was ‘inexcusable. Inspectors saw bells going unanswered even when staff were doing nothing else’. This was in a prison which was not short staffed and is a crucial point. It directly challenges the dominant, politically expedient narrative popularised by the Prison Officers Association, the media, liberal reform groups and successive government Ministers of all political persuasions that cuts to staffing levels are the single cause of the prison crisis and therefore if the cuts were restored then the benevolent, penal status quo would be restored.

This narrative ignores one key issue which is consistently marginalised in the debates about prisons: the authoritarian, occupational culture of prison officers. Forty eight per cent of prisoners surveyed in Exeter said they had been bullied or victimised by staff. There was a casual, systemic indifference towards those supposedly in the care of the state. The inspector described the case of one vulnerable prisoner who was:

…assessed as being at heightened risk of suicide and self harm, who should have been located on the dedicated first night unit, [but who] was instead placed on C1 wing, a subterranean unit that was in effect being used as a segregation unit but without any of the usual safeguards. This prisoner spent three days on this unit before moving to the first night unit where inspectors saw him in a squalid cell without bedding, a television or glass in his window. None of this had been reported by staff who were required to check on him regularly as part of his care plan.

The Use of Force

As in Nottingham, despite the fact that the use of force by staff had risen by 39% since August 2016, and that there had been more than 250 use of force reports written in the five months between January and May 2018, they ‘had not been completed by staff, and those that had been completed were not routinely reviewed by managers’. The Inspector maintained that it was ‘extraordinary that our main recommendation on the governance of the use of force has been largely ignored’. This was compounded by the fact that the formal demand that any planned use of force should be filmed, in only three out of 39 cases was this done. Similarly, body-worn cameras ‘were not used in the majority of incidents’

Finally, the common sense idea that the prison exists to reduce crime, is challenged by the fact that not only was it easy to acquire drugs in Exeter but, astonishingly, 14% of prisoners in the inspectorate’s survey indicated that they had ‘acquired a drug habit in the prison.’

A New Regime?

The appointment of a new team at the Ministry of Justice is unlikely to change anything either at Nottingham or Exeter or alleviate the wider prison crisis. For decades, like the NHS, the prison system has experienced continuous and destructive ‘re-disorganisation’, a concept attributed to Alan Maynard. Endless reforms have been pursued by ministers from different political parties who have publicly and loudly sold what they claim to be new ideas, initiatives and innovations. However, this is ideological window dressing. Their snake oil policies have only reinforced the common sense discourse that the prison, despite two centuries of often-catastrophic failure, is a bulwark against the criminal threat and social disintegration posed by the immoral detritus existing malevolently on the bottom rung of the ladder of contemporary neoliberal inequality.

It has often been said, but is worth repeating, as a state institution, the prison lies at the jagged end of the continuum of punishment represented by the criminal justice system which criminalises the behaviour of the poor and the powerless while, as ever, the economically and politically powerful, including state servants, enjoy the benevolent protection of the state. This is based on ‘light touch’ regulation and a lack of democratic accountability which, in turn, generates a toxic culture of immunity and impunity. So while the powerful are systematically protected, the lack of protection for some of the most vulnerable people in this society in prisons, and other state institutions – the heartless changes to the benefits system being a prime example – reflects the deep and enduring hypocrisy, the unprincipled expediency and the morally bankrupt nature of the penal (and social) policies pursued by politicians, irrespective of their political persuasion. It is a vicious circle with one desperate outcome: death, danger and dehumanisation for those inside and, increasingly, the dispossessed outside.


Like Liverpool, the purgatorial regimes in Nottingham and Exeter prisons sent, and continue to send, a brutal message: prisoners did not merit a compassionate response from the state or its servants. Nor were they entitled to merciful nurturing which would ensure their safety and protection. In fact, in Nottingham, only 38% of prisoners who were managed through the ACCT system, designed to reduce the risk to those who might self-harm or take their own lives, ‘felt cared for by staff’.

They were bereft, confronted, as they were, by a haunting, punitive structure of penal power which unrelentingly stigmatised them as perennially undeserving based on a contemptuous indifference towards, and withering disregard of, their pain. It was a structure which callously and casually rubbed away at their lives generating a searing invisibility about who they were as human beings, their desires, fears and hopes, a mortifying process which psychologically crushed and physically bled them leaving them to exist, in Lisa Stevenson’s phrase, in a spectral ‘wasteland of nobodies’. Trapped in these melancholic places, their sense of terror was reinforced by the senseless futility and irrationality of the prison rules. Given this, the self-harm and self-inflicted deaths in the prisons can be understood as rational responses to an-often intolerable and pathological world which had little or no meaning. Institutionalised indifference, underpinned by the threat and use of state violence, can break even those who have an iron will for self-preservation.

This is the grim lesson from Liverpool, Nottingham and Exeter. Politicians, and those who run and manage the prison system, should be utterly ashamed. They might also consider that there may well be a reckoning at some future point for what they have done, and continue to do, in the name of the current criminal injustice system.

The impact of austerity on children and young people’s health and well-being in England and Wales

Dr Sarah tickle is Lecturer in Criminology and member of the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion at Liverpool John Moores University. She can be found at @SarahTickle1

The financial crisis of 2007-8, and the unprecedented austerity measures that we have since witnessed, has impacted disproportionately on children and young people in England and Wales. In 2013, youth unemployment reached an all-time high and approximately 60 per cent of young people were unemployed in some European states. Documenting in 2014, UNISON reported that £259 million had been cut from youth service spending by councils and at least 35,000 hours of outreach work by youth workers had been removed. A year on, the Report of the UK Children’s Commissioners UN Committee on the Rights of the Child highlighted the failings of the state, where: austerity measures have reduced provision of a range of services that protect and fulfil children’s rights, including health and child and adolescent mental health services; education; early years; preventive and early intervention services; and youth services’. In this context, we must consider where we are at now and how austerity measures are impacting upon young people today. UNISON’s 2014 report spoke volumes and predicted the damage that would inevitably happen. This was subsequently highlighted two years later. A Future At Risk: Cuts in Youth Services published by UNISON warned that in the year 2016/17, and beyond, there was likely to be at least £26m more cuts in youth service spending, the loss of around 800 more jobs, more than 30 youth centres closed, and 45,000 youth service places for young people removed. The worst was confirmed in December 2017 when Children and Young People Now claimed that ‘youth service cuts [were] deeper than predicted’ and confirmed that ‘spending on youth services by local authorities last year [2016] fell by £42m more than initially predicted, government figures have revealed’.

So, has the health and well-being of children and young people been affected by this?

During 2016 and 2017 the theme of mental health dominated the news with headlines such as ‘Crisis in mental health care for young people’‘Teenage mental health crisis: rates of depression have soared in the last 25 years’, and ‘NHS figures show ‘shocking’ rise in self-harm among young’New research by Patalay and Fitzsimons reported on the epidemic of poor mental health amongst our young people and claimed that one in four girls had depression by the time they were 14. It is not surprising also to see headlines reporting that ‘one in three children suffer from loneliness’. It is clear that we are witnessing a ‘crisis’ with regards to the health and well-being of our children and young people in England and Wales.  It is without doubt that austerity measures are having serious negative impacts upon young people’s health, well-being and social development (See Children’s Commissioner 2016; Ayre 2016, McKee et al 2010). Natasha Devon, the first Department for Education Mental Health Champion, declared before her role was terminated in May 2016 that, ‘this government and the coalition before them have engineered a social climate where it’s really difficult for any young person to enjoy optimal mental health’.

Investing in young people and providing for them so that they can enjoy optimal health is clearly not happening. The loss of services, and the closure of youth centres, have left children and young people with nowhere to go. They can no longer attend a youth centre and socialise with peers, talk to youth workers and overall have somewhere to relax and feel safe. Providing such a service for our young people, combining educational and recreational elements, highlighted the important role of youth work, and what youth centres did for young people’s personal and social development.

After spending a year with young people in two coastal resorts, my own research found that it was imperative to provide a safe place for young people outside of the home. Young people reported they needed safe places to ‘hang out’ ‘socialise’ and ‘feel safe’ with their peers because youth centres were a ‘sanctuary’ for them. Not only did they offer informal education and extra-curricular activities, youth centres also provided three basic needs, food, safety and shelter. The value in young people having ‘somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to’ is beyond doubt. As youth workers have feared, if this is taken away then many ‘young people [will be] left hanging about on street corners, rather than having youth centres where they can learn new skills and channel their energies into projects’. Investing in young people through youth centres can help to build safer communities for them, and can go towards improving children and young people’s health and well-being. As the Berkshire youth survey reported ‘youth clubs are key to children’s well-being’ and children and young people who attend youth clubs will be happier and healthier than those who do not’. The extent of the cuts in youth services has been made devastatingly clear. From the headlines documented earlier, is it any coincidence that the removal of such youth provisions has led to a generation of young people at risk of a range of social harms?

Prisons, Profits and Outsourcing: ‘Money Doesn’t Talk, It Swears’

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University

On January 19th, the extent of the now-defunct Carillion’s relationship with the criminal justice system was clarified in a letter from David Gauke, the new Justice Secretary (the sixth in just under seven years), to Bob Neill, the Chair of the House of Commons Justice Select Committee. The relationship began in November 2001 when the company signed a contract worth £5.1 million a year to provide services, over 25 years, to Humberside Courts. If it had stayed in business until 2029, Carillion would have earned £647,680,000 from the different contracts it had signed with the state. When it went into liquidation, the company had paid nearly £4,130,000 in financial penalties on the approximately £347 million it had earned up to December 2017.

Gauke noted that the company’s ‘service quality’ had ‘been poor’. This was ‘due to a variety of reasons both within and without Carillion’s control; such as poor contract mobilisation …..increasing vandalism rates and reduced capital investment in the estate’. Astonishingly, however, the letter claimed that while there had been similar issues confronting Amey, another outsourcing company, it was still ‘in a better operational and commercial position to deliver service improvements’

This will be news to the Chief Inspector of Prisons who, ironically, published a devastating report on Liverpool prison on the same day as Gauke’s letter was sent to Neill. The Chief Inspector pointed out that as there had been ‘serious problems with the resourcing of the works contract, 2000 maintenance jobs were outstanding at the time of the inspection’. This was in a prison which was decaying, decrepit and degrading. Who held the contract? Amey

After arranging an unprecedented hearing in the light of the Chief Inspector’s damning report, the Justice Committee published its own report on 16th February. Having heard from the new Justice Secretary, the Chief Executive of the Prison and Probation Service and the new prison governor, members of the Committee were still ‘not satisfied with the explanations we heard of the rising backlog of maintenance tasks….We believe that the systems for managing contractors and penalising poor performance are not sufficiently transparent’.

Broader Issues

There are a number of broader issues involved here. First, in failing to maintain the fabric of the prisons with which they were involved, Carillion and Amey have contributed to the brutal, dehumanizing conditions experienced by prisoners and the traumatic impact on them and their families.

Second, the relationship between Carillion, and the criminal justice system, raises profound moral questions about the relentless, ruthless drive for profit and the company’s role in providing ‘services’ to prisons. Whose interests do they serve? How can this drive be reconciled with delivering justice? Whose order and what law do the companies subscribe to? Now rebranded as CoreCivic, intent on serving the ‘public good’, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) was one of the first companies involved in offering ‘services’ to prisons: ‘the company was founded on the principle that you could sell prisons “just like you were selling cars, or real estate, or hamburgers”’

Private companies rely on high rates of punishment in order to survive, expand and satisfy shareholders. No crime, no imprisonment and no recidivism means no contracts and no profits. CCA’s comments, made in 2005, crystalise this point:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any change with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities (emphasis added).

Third, successive governments have lamentably failed to ensure that these corporations, and their employees, are held to account for their actions. What if they fail to deliver, as happened with the works contract in Liverpool? How was it possible for a backlog of 2000 jobs to build up in the prison without any action being taken? Where was the accountability? It is a scandal which would have remained invisible had it not been for the Chief Inspector’s report.

This is not to say that state-run institutions have been, or are, democratically accountable, as the debates around deaths in custody powerfully and poignantly illustrate.

However, contracting out services has intensified the systemic problems in this area. Carillion’s contract with the prison service was worth £75 million annually. And while, as Corporate Watch has noted, there were 1000 Carillion staff working with prisoners, they did not receive training in preventing self-harm and self-inflicted deaths. In fact, ‘the prison service did not hold records on what training the outsourced staff had received from Carillion’. This can have devastating consequences. Two days before he killed himself in Winchester prison, Sean Plumstead:

…had asked the staff member supervising his work in the prison’s clothing store about the best ways to kill himself. The supervisor dismissed Sean’s words as “banter”. Lacking any training in self-harm and suicide prevention procedures, he did not report the conversation. Sean’s unusually distracted behaviour at work on the day of his suicide also went unrecorded. As a result, no action was taken to support him.

Privatising prison ‘services’ has added another problematic, mystifying layer to those state structures supposedly designed to ensure transparency and accountability but which, in practice, are brittle to the point where even recommendations made by official bodies such as the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman scandalously are often ignored and not implemented.

So too are prisoners’ complaints. The Chief Inspector’s survey of prisoners in Liverpool noted that only 10% of those who made a complaint said that it had been dealt with within seven days, while 20% felt that their complaints were dealt with fairly. In a further, cruel twist, the survey found that ‘a number of responses to complaints in a wing office which had been there for as long as three months without being returned to prisoners’.

Finally, why are the poor and the powerless relentlessly and hypocritically told they need to be responsible for their actions, and are denigrated when they allegedly behave irresponsibly, as the traumatic experiences of many welfare claimants demonstrate? Conversely, why is the irresponsibility of corporations like Carillion and the desolation they leave behind – breathtaking in its scope and decimating in its impact – effectively ignored? The financial penalty of just over £4 million, levied on the company for poor performances, on an income of £347 million, can be contrasted with the punishment of the poor.

To take just one example. In 2015, according to the Ministry of Justice, there were over 189,000 people prosecuted for not having a TV licence, 70% of whom were women. The conviction rate was 88%, while the average fine was £170. If an individual does not pay the fine imposed, then prison can been used as a punishment. In 2013, according to an official review by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, published in 2015, 32 people were imprisoned for the non-payment of the fine imposed.

Inevitably, it was the poor in general, and poor women in particular, who were targeted and criminalized. Capita, (which, at the time of writing, was posting profit warnings), was allegedly operating a scheme whereby staff who wanted to accrue bonuses were set a weekly target for identifying those who did not have a licence:

Staff targeted vulnerable people, including….a war veteran with dementia and a young mother in a women’s refuge…. Capita was said to have told an undercover reporter, who posed as an applicant for an enforcement job, that the company was ‘greedy’ for as much cash as possible. Area TV licensing manager Ian Doyle was filmed saying: ‘We are looking to get 28 licence sales per week from each officer. As soon as you hit that magic 28 there’s a bonus … Basically you’ve got to get 28 conviction statements before you can start hitting extra money’. He joked that the job involved ‘attacking poor unsuspecting victims’.

Facing the Future

The contracting out of prison ‘services’, the privatization of prisons and the drive towards payment by results have had a corrosive impact on an-already disintegrating  criminal justice system and have failed to reduce recidivism, alleviate victimization and generate public protection. Importantly, however, focusing on private sector involvement in the criminal justice system should not distract attention away from the systemic problems in prisons. It was noticeable that while the Justice Committee remained dissatisfied with the role of the private contractor in Liverpool, it failed to comment on the scandalous use of unofficial punishments by prison staff which was highlighted in the Chief Inspector’s initial report. Why has that issue effectively disappeared from the political and public debate and why has the Prison Officers Association been allowed to dominate the debate regarding the state of the prisons? This is a question that politicians might ask themselves.

On 19th February, Tony Paine, who had mental health issues, killed himself in the prison. He died despite pleas from his mother to the court judge that her son would not be safe in prison, and despite Tom’s harrowing plea to her to ‘Help me please’, which she attempted to do but to no avail.

Tony’s death, was one of seven self-inflicted deaths in the prison in less than three years. It provides another indication that the focus should not simply be on the private companies. The broader culture of degradation, trauma, punishment and violence that operates in prisons, which denies prisoners a sense of well-being, induces terror as it did in Tom’s case, and disavows them as human beings, should also be a focus for political and moral outrage as should the deeply embedded sense of immunity and systemic lack of accountability which allows many state servants to operate with impunity.

Successive British governments have had no answer to the prison crisis, except to endlessly repeat the tired, snake-oil mantra that building more prisons will solve the problem and keep the wider society safe. Given the current situation in the USA, the country with the highest prison population in the world, but which cannot prevent mass shootings and keep its children safe, that is hardly a defensible position. It is also worth noting that in the Rule of Law Index, published just after the Chief Inspector’s scathing report on Liverpool, the UK had fallen to 11th place in the survey of 113 countries. This decline was due to the ineffectiveness of the prison system which scored 0.53 in the Index, lower than the score of 0.58 achieved by the USA, a country hardly renowned for its liberal penal policies.

The discourse of building more prisons has an iron grip on the hearts and minds of politicians. However, it has not, and will not, work with or without private sector involvement in the criminal justice system. The failure of this sector to contribute to a criminal justice (and welfare) system, based on an inclusive ethics of compassion and social justice, is clear.  It is also clear that the prison system is beyond redemption. It does not rehabilitate, reduce victimization or offer public protection. Private companies cannot redeem the system despite the hubris from politicians, media commentators, state servants and the companies themselves. Removing them from any involvement in the criminal justice system would be a small, important step in the giant leap that is needed for its radical transformation.

Thanks to Kym Atkinson, Helen Monk and Katie Tucker for their comments on this blog. 

Remembering the suffragettes as “domestic extremists”

Will Jackson is Lecturer in Criminology and member of the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion at Liverpool John Moores University. He writes on policing and protest and can be found at @Will_H_Jackson

Helen Monk is Lecturer in Criminology and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion at Liverpool John Moores University. She writes on gender violence and feminist theory and can be found at @ccse_ljmu

The 100th anniversary this month of the extension of the right to vote for (some) women in Britain has provided an important public moment to consider both the progress made and the work still to be done to achieve gender equality.

For many people, the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act has provided an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of those women who campaigned for the right to vote, and there has been some interesting public debate about how these women should be remembered.

Debates about the way we should publically recognise the campaign for women’s suffrage did not start this month. The discussion in recent years around which figure should be given a statue in Parliament Square for example, has not only highlighted the role of different individuals but also the crucial divisions within the campaign for suffrage based on the politics of different factions.

A choice between a statue of Millicent Fawcett or Emmeline Pankhurst is a choice between whether we focus our collective memory on the suffragists or the suffragettes. This choice is ultimately a political one that involves emphasising, and celebrating, either the reformism of Fawcett or the militancy of Pankhurst.

Recently on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, Theresa May was asked to make this choice and she conceded, perhaps predictably, that she saw herself as more of a suffragist than a suffragette, preferring Fawcett’s approach of gradual constitutional reform to Pankhurst’s politics of direct action.

But the Prime Minister did accept that both approaches played a role, and her public recognition of the place of direct action protest, at least in this particular part of Britain’s history of social progress, is the most striking example of conservative figures displaying a retrospective acceptance of militancy in this context.

A campaign to pardon the suffragettes, supported by the Labour Party and The Fawcett Society, is also being considered by Home Secretary Amber Rudd. The idea that we should overturn the convictions of women who consciously broke the law as part of their struggle for the vote, has been presented as a necessary response to right historical wrongs and recognises, in Jeremy Corbyn’s words, that these women were “treated appallingly by society and the state”.

However, this has not been welcomed by all. For some, pardoning these women would involve more an act of seeking to forget than one of remembrance. Shirley Williams suggested that pardoning is different from celebration because “pardon already means you have done something wrong”. Similarly, for feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez pardoning suffragettes would do them a disservice, and she has argued that these women shouldn’t be “whitewashed and made more palatable”.

We should instead recognise that the suffragettes were radical and their law-breaking was a conscious part of their strategy to tackle the system that denied them a vote. To pardon would be to deny the central place of this strategy in their campaign and in the history of women’s struggle. As writer and broadcaster Bidisha has argued, it would amount to a “patronising pat on the head” that fails to recognise the nature of the battle fought by women then, and the continuing struggle faced by women today.

The idea that our celebrations this month, and our wider attempts at collective remembrance, are failing to recognise the militancy of Pankhurst and her fellow suffragettes is worth considering in more detail.

How we remember the suffragettes and their political tactics has implications for how we, as a society, define our current politics and how we do democracy in the 21st century. To have our Prime Minister accept that women’s right to vote was secured in part through militant direct action, raises interesting questions about the way current campaigns for social justice are perceived and responded to in the UK.

Defining unacceptable political activism

Our current research focusses on the policing of protest, and as part of this, we have sought to examine how political activism is currently responded to in England and Wales. In a recent co-authored publication, we showed how police currently define “activism”, as a general category of political action, as being associated with criminality.

Drawing upon documents produced by the National Police Chiefs’ Council [NPCC] and The College of Policing (the professional body for policing in England and Wales) we highlighted how acceptable forms of political action are defined as being limited to those that make only a symbolic register of opposition.

In our recent research on the policing of protests against ‘fracking’, we have observed that any form of disruption, including that which is entirely peaceful, is deemed unacceptable by police. This leads us to wonder how, despite the recent celebrations, the women who campaigned for the vote would actually be responded to today.

When we examined current police policy we saw that an “activist”, whilst clearly categorised as criminal in NPCC documents [figure 1], was identified by The College of Policing as “a person who believes strongly in political or social change and works hard to try and make this happen” [see figure 2]. Here, it would seem, both the militancy of Pankhurst and the reformism of Fawcett would be placed beyond the pale.

The structure of Protest - fuffragettes blog

[Figure 1 – The Structure of Protest, taken from ACPO (2015) Policing linked to Onshore Oil and Gas Operations, London: National Police Chief’s Council, 8].

But the “activist” is not the most dangerous type of individual involved in political protest in the view of police. These are the “extremists” who, in the schema devised by the College of Policing are defined as “People with extreme opinions – one who favours using extreme or violent methods esp. to bring about political change” [see Figure 2].  Here Pankhurst is separated from Fawcett, and her militancy – especially the “Deeds not Words” approach synonymous with the suffragettes – would have her labelled as an extremist.

People invovled in protest

[Figure 2 – College of Policing (n.d.) Protester Tactics: An Introduction for Police Liaison Teams]

For a long time now, the government has struggled to define what it means to be an extremist and in recent years we have seen peaceful protesters presented alongside ISIS inspired groups and the far right in Prevent training sessions. The central problem lies with defining what extremism is and where the problem lies. The government’s counter-extremism programme ‘Prevent’ has been widely criticised for its disproportionate focus on Muslim communities and for its failure to define extremism clearly and transparently.

The lack of a clear definition means that individuals and campaigns involved in legitimate political movements have been smeared with the label “domestic extremist”. We have seen in our work how the label is so broad that it groups together genuine threats to security with those campaigns for social justice that question the legitimacy of the status quo.

This conflation is why the label is so problematic. Domestic extremists are, in the words of MI5, “individuals or groups that carry out criminal acts in pursuit of a larger agenda” and, we are told, they “may seek to change legislation or influence domestic policy and try to achieve this outside of the normal democratic process”.

In these terms, Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) would still be of significant interest to the police and security services as they were at the time. Indeed, the very systems of covert surveillance that were introduced to tackle the threat posed by the suffragettes continue to be central to the extensive system of monitoring political groups and activists, including MPs and members of the House of Lords if they are deemed to be radical enough.

board game together

[images taken from Pank-a-Squith board game produced by the WSPU circa 1909 to highlight their struggle and to raise money for their campaign].

We find ourselves, therefore, in a peculiar situation in which the Prime Minister is able to recognise the historical importance of a group of women who would today be seen by the state as equally as dangerous as they were at the time because of the focus and form of their political movement. From the distance of 100 years, and in a context in which gender equality is generally accepted as an essential goal, it is politically expedient for the Prime Minister to celebrate the suffragettes and even to condone their criminality.

But when we look at how current campaigns for social or environmental justice have been responded to on her watch, both as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, we find that things have not changed a great deal. As we erect statues and find other ways to remember the suffragettes, we should consider how their challenge to the social order of the day would be responded to now, and ask ourselves which contemporary movements are going to be remembered very differently in 2118.

Thanks to Kym Atkinson, Katie Tucker and Joe Sim for their comments and input into this blog. 

Liverpool: A Broken Prison in a Broken System

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

On January 19th, the Chief Inspector of Prisons published a lacerating report on the state of Liverpool prison. It highlighted, in bleak detail, the ‘abject failure of HMP Liverpool to offer a safe, decent and purposeful environment’. Conditions were the worst the Inspectorate had ever seen.

Every aspect of the regime – safety, respect, purposeful activity, rehabilitation and release planning – was criticised. Despite the odd pocket of good practice, such as the nursing staff who were ‘caring and kind in their approach’, overall, prisoners were systematically degraded. They existed in putrefying, soul-crunching conditions which corroded any spiritual, social or psychological development. A harrowing, detailed description of one prisoner’s experience is reproduced below, as it captures the brutal levels of degrading mortification operating in the institution:

Some of the most concerning findings were around the squalid living conditions endured by many prisoners. Many cells were not fit to be used and should have been decommissioned. Some had emergency call bells that were not working but were nevertheless still occupied, presenting an obvious danger to prisoners. There were hundreds of unrepaired broken windows, with jagged glass left in the frames. Many lavatories were filthy, blocked or leaking. There were infestations of cockroaches in some areas, broken furniture, graffiti, damp and dirt. In one extreme case, I found a prisoner who had complex mental health needs being held in a cell that had no furniture other than a bed. The windows of both the cell and the toilet recess were broken, the light fitting in his toilet was broken with wires exposed, the lavatory was filthy and appeared to be blocked, his sink was leaking and the cell was dark and damp. Extraordinarily, this man had apparently been held in this condition for some weeks. The inspectors had brought this prisoner’s circumstances to the attention of the prison, and it should not have needed my personal intervention for this man to be moved from such appalling conditions. The prison was generally untidy and in many places there were piles of rubbish. During the course of the inspection, efforts were made to clear some of it, but there was simply too much. I saw piles of rubbish that had clearly been there for a long time, and in which inspectors reported seeing rats on a regular basis. I was told by a senior member of staff that it had not been cleared by prisoners employed as cleaning orderlies because it presented a health and safety risk. It was so bad that external contractors were to be brought in to deal with it. In other words, this part of the jail had become so dirty, infested and hazardous to health that it could not be cleaned.

This situation was compounded by the failure to maintain the institution by the contracted out services. The works contract was outsourced to GeoAmey (one of 61 contracts the company enjoyed in different prisons) whose website claims that it is a ‘safe, secure and professional service treating those in our care and custody with dignity and respect’. The report told a different story. Astonishingly, because of the ‘serious problems with the resourcing of the works contract, 2000 maintenance jobs were outstanding at the time of the inspection’. This in a prison that was decaying and crumbling.

blog all 3

All images from HMP Liverpool report

Unofficial Punishments

Beyond the degrading conditions, unofficial punishments were utilised by staff, a point prisoners and ex-prisoners have been making for decades about Liverpool, and other prisons. Prisoners who refused to leave the segregation unit were subjected to sanctions which, in the words of the report, ‘lacked decency such as withholding showers and telephone calls’. Crucially, the report noted that these sanctions were ‘applied by staff outside of any formal policy’ and, therefore, ‘constituted unofficial punishment’. This key issue was ignored in media outlets such as Channel 4 News, the Morning Star and the Liverpool Echo. On the evening of the report’s publication, Channel 4 News, discussed the report in an item which included the families of deceased prisoners discussing their experiences. However, it also included a studio discussion involving the chair of Liverpool’s Prison Officers Association (POA) and the chair of the Justice Select Committee in the House of Commons. The POA representative was allowed to drag the discussion onto the terrain of the cuts and how they had impacted on the institution. This ignored the fact that the pre-cuts prison was also a place of degradation, violence, harm and humiliation. The cuts have intensified these harms, they are not the cause of them. This key issue was ignored.

The use of force was barely documented by prison staff. In the previous six months, ‘force had been used on 288 occasions’. This was lower when compared with the previous inspection ‘but still high’. However, as the report noted:

A significant amount of recent use of force paperwork was incomplete and did not provide assurance of proportionate and necessary use. Fire-retardant hoods that looked like balaclavas were still worn by staff during incidents without obvious reason. In at least one instance the drawing of a baton had not been recorded or investigated. Some completed records also indicated that excessive force had been used by staff but managers were not aware of this. Monthly use of force meetings were not held routinely and not all use of force incidents were reviewed. Data were not being used effectively to help understand and reduce use of force, segregation and adjudication.

Finally, unexplained injuries ‘were recorded but not investigated’.

Death, Health and Prisoner Safety

Between 2005 and 2016, there were 52 deaths in the prison, 27 of which were self-inflicted. The Chief Inspector noted that ‘[r]reasonable progress had been made in implementing Prisons and Probation Ombudsman’s recommendations following deaths in custody but self-harm was increasing’. Four prisoners had killed themselves since the previous inspection in 2015, while another two had killed themselves since September 2017. There had been 184 incidents of self-harm in the previous six months. Officially, prisoners who are regarded as being at risk of a self-inflicted death have an ACCT form opened on them. In the previous six months, ‘ACCT’s had been opened 546 times and on one day during our inspection 68 prisoners were on ACCTs’. Importantly, however, when the Chief Inspector visited the prison at night:

 …an officer on one unit was responsible for making observational entries, on average, once every five minutes during his 11-hour shift…We were shocked to find that another officer was unaware that he carried a cell key for use during an emergency. The quality of ACCT documents was inadequate: triggers were incorrectly recorded, care maps were incomplete and reviews were late.

And while the Chief Inspector recognised the individual initiatives that were in place to manage risks, ‘…the ‘overall strategic response to reducing self-harm was underdeveloped’.

How prisoners are treated in the early stages of their confinement is a key, risk factor in any decision they might make to kill themselves. Despite this knowledge, conditions in the reception area were poor: ‘only 16% of prisoners said that their first night cell was clean. The cells that we inspected were austere and shabby but efforts had been made to remove graffiti’. Only ‘53% of prisoners said they felt safe on their first night. There was only one night officer who could not effectively monitor all the men in his care. On one night during our inspection, he was responsible for enhanced monitoring of 20 new arrivals and 19 prisoners on ACCTs’.

More generally, the physical standards of health care were problematic:

[c]linical rooms varied in cleanliness. Some wing and reception clinical rooms were in a poor state of decoration. They were not cleaned regularly and did not meet required infection control standard… No information could be provided by the relevant contractor regarding the Legionella risk from a disused bath…Not all equipment had been tested and maintained.

Additionally, ‘the serious lack of capacity…and failure to allocate sufficient custody staff to the inpatient unit led to unacceptable outcomes for many of the most vulnerable prisoners’.

Dismissing Prisoners and Denying Accountability

The dismissive attitude towards prisoners was clear in the complaints procedure. Only 10% of those surveyed, who had made a complaint, indicated that it had been dealt with within seven days while only 20% felt that their complaints were dealt with fairly. The Inspector found ‘a number of responses to complaints in a wing office which had been there for as long as three months without being returned to prisoners….Quality assurance of complaints was not robust’. The legal isolation of the prisoners was reinforced by the fact that there was ‘no legal advice service’, no ‘”access to justice”’ laptops, no information was displayed about bodies such as the Legal Ombudsman and ‘[l]egal visits continued to start late’. Additionally, there was no system for tracking applications. Only 22% of prisoners said that their applications were dealt within seven days and no action was taken at meetings.

One of the most poignant themes in the report was the lack of contact with families. Given that family contact is crucial in the process of rehabilitation, the institution’s palpable failure in this area was nothing short of disgraceful. The report noted that ‘[t]he support given to men to maintain contact with the outside world had deteriorated since the last inspection and opportunities were missed in several areas’.  Prisoners experienced ‘significant delays in adding telephone numbers to their pin phone account’ while an astonishing 66% of those surveyed had problems receiving or sending mail. Additionally, ‘too many prisoners were placed on closed visits for reasons unrelated to visits’. In terms of purposeful activity, 43% of prisoners surveyed said that they ‘usually spent less than two hours out of their cell on a typical weekday’ while  there was ‘no association periods during the week, exercise periods outside were for only half an hour and men only received time to carry out domestic tasks every other day….’

There was no accountability. Previous recommendations arising from earlier inspections designed to improve the prison had effectively been ignored, a problem throughout the prison system. Of the 89 recommendations made in 2015, only 23 had been achieved, 14 had been partially achieved and 53 had not been achieved. These data plug into the longer historical trend in ignoring official recommendations at the prison. Between 2012 and 2014, the Inspectorate made 288 recommendations about the prison. Only 34% were achieved, leaving 66% partially achieved or not achieved.

Differential Suffering

Black and minority ethnic prisoners ‘spoke more negatively about their treatment than white prisoners’. The report noted that the monitoring of the adjudication, incentives and earned privileges and complaints systems showed ‘a disproportionate number of prisoners in the areas of age, ethnicity and religion’.  The reasons for this disproportionality had not been investigated. There was ‘little evidence of staff using professional interpreting and translation’ for foreign national prisoners who were consequently isolated on the prison’s wings. The institution was ‘unable to meet the needs of many disabled prisoners’. This was in a prison where 450 prisoners had identified themselves as having a disability. Finally, ‘mental health provision had deteriorated significantly’. As a result, those with mental health needs ‘were not consistently seen promptly or reviewed frequently enough….’

The Myth of Rehabilitation

Even on its own terms, the prison was failing in its alleged rehabilitative role: there was no offender management policy; no coordination between the different groups involved in rehabilitation; assessments were poor and, shockingly, only 23% of prisoners surveyed indicated they had a custody plan.

Given all of the above, it is not surprising that some prisoners chose to respond in different ways through engaging in self-harm, self-inflicted death, drugs and violence. Looking at these responses from the outside, they appear to confirm the pathological nature of the imprisoned. And yet, it is difficult to imagine any human being placed in such anomic, piercing circumstances not to react negatively. What is clear is that it is not individual prisoners who should be seen in pathological terms.

Rather, Liverpool was a pathological, harm-inducing institution breaking apart the lives and psyches of individuals whose lives and psyches were already fractured. It was an institution that was not out of control, as common sense and media discourses would have it. It was in control of the prisoners, revving up fears and anxieties to unacceptable and unbearable levels while brutally extinguishing individual hope or desire to change for the better. The prisoners’ aching desolation was ignored. There was no circle of safety for them. They were human junk left to fester in a rotting and rotten penal dustbin. There was an institutionalised taboo on pity, mercy and empathy.

The one problem with the report is that it failed to recognise that the prison has always been like this. It had, and continues to have, a fearsome reputation amongst prisoners and ex-prisoners, alongside other ‘screws’ nicks’ like Birmingham, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. In that sense, issues identified by the Chief Inspector are not new, the problems may have become more intense but the actual nature of the regime has been evident for decades. What has been done about it? Nothing.

The Failure of the State

After the report’s publication, the Chief Inspector pointed out that there was a failure of leadership at local, regional and national levels. This is also not surprising given that there have been five Ministers of Justice in the last four years while the longest serving prison minister in history lasted 25 months. However, the failure of national penal policy did not stop senior prison service managers receiving bonuses in 2016-17. The Chief Executive of the Prison Service (an oxymoronic phrase if ever there was one) earned £145,000-£150,000 annually. An additional £25,000 was paid into his pension pot. He, and four other, senior managers earned £50,000 to £75,000 between them in bonuses. Further down the penal chain, management at the local level was an invisible presence that failed dismally to control the regime’s purgatorial presence and to offer protection to, and ensure the safety of, the prisoners towards whom they owed a duty of care. Ironically, prisons are supposed to generate a sense of responsibility in those they confine. And yet, they were held in a place that epitomised irresponsibility, underpinned by a toxic, punitive culture of complacency and indifference towards them.


It is worth noting that the Chief Inspector, Peter Clarke, achieved the rank of Deputy Commissioner in the Metropolitan police and is the former Head of Counter Terrorism Command. Therefore, he does not fit the ‘pro-crime, anti-victim’ caricature which has been the standard and offensive response often used by politicians from different, political parties when their penal policies are catastrophically failing, as is the case with Liverpool.

The Justice Select Committee met to discuss the report the week after its publication. It was the first time that the Committee had ‘ever inquired into an individual inspection report because, frankly, we were so horrified at what we saw’. The Committee heard from prison service officials that a number of the worst cells had been taken out of commission and that purposeful activity had increased. Committee members also recognised that there was an issue about the non-implementation of official recommendations with the consequent problem this generated for the democratic accountability of the institution. And while they correctly acknowledged that Liverpool was ‘well-resourced in terms of staff’ and, therefore, staffing levels had nothing to do with the degrading state of the prison, the infliction of punishment, officially and unofficially by prison staff, was, as ever, neglected. Until that key issue is recognised, and dealt with, by those who are supposed to oversee the prison system in England and Wales, then it is unlikely that the crisis at Liverpool, or, indeed other prisons, will be alleviated.

Government ministers, old and new, should be ashamed of the callous immorality displayed in Liverpool, as should prison service managers and many, though not all, of those who work in the institution. The report demonstrates a moral and political dereliction of duty which, if it happened in other organisations, would be unequivocally condemned, and indeed, could result in prosecutions. Why has this not happened in this case? As ever, a culture of immunity and impunity prevails when it comes to taking any action against those who either fail to do their job, or fail in their duty of care towards prisoners. Until such action is taken, and state servants are held accountable for their actions, through the utilisation of provisions in the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 to investigate deaths in custody, as the charity INQUEST has called for in the case of Woodhill prison, (] then this will not be the last report of its kind.

Thanks to Kym Atkinson and Katie Tucker for their insights and suggestions on an earlier draft of this blog.