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.
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’.
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).
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.