The Johnson Government: Working for the Brexit Clampdown

Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology, The Open University

As the country teeters on the brink of the chaos of an impending no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson’s administration has entered electioneering mode. The administration is following a familiar path that has a history of at least 40 years in the Tory party: first, that attitudes and actions towards the EU are not at all about any ‘national’ interest but are about party interests and, specifically, keeping a Tory Government in power at all and any costs; and, second, invoking a tough on crime, law and order discourse to capitalise on popular anxieties to offer false certainties around security and a sense of protection.

Mobilising Fear

On the latter – the subject of this short piece – virtually the first act of the incoming Prime Minister Johnson was to announce the recruitment of 20,000 police officers in order “to make our streets safer”. This was followed by a concerted set of announcements by the Prime Minister and his capital-punishment flirting Home Secretary Priti Patel; their Government would, they trumpeted, “shift the balance of fear” and fill criminals with terror, as they announced alongside the increase in police numbers a ramping up in sentences, stopping early release, and extending the right to stop and search – no doubt, Johnson added, prompting the “Left-wing criminologists” to “howl”. Priti Patel used the Sun on Sunday, the newspaper that emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of the crime-ridden News of The World, to cynically exploit the “attack on brave police officer Stuart Outten” which had taken place in London days earlier, an attack which she claimed “was a reminder that the police put their lives on the line to keep us safe”. Clearly, police officers are injured and killed during the course of their work, as the most recent death of PC Andrew Harper has shown, and their victimisation should not be denied. However, Patel’s comments somewhat obscure the fact that, compared with other occupations, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Deaths in these other occupations deserve to be treated with the same respect and consideration when lives are lost and families are irreparably damaged.

Joe and Steve blog picture 1

These are well-trodden, and therefore highly cynically chosen, paths. In 1979, the Thatcher government’s first major policy initiative was to implement the Edmund-Davies pay review leading to a spike in police numbers. The result? A spike in the recorded crime rate. Home Office research concluded at the time that ‘whatever the benefits in terms of public reassurance or confidence, increasing visible police presence through extra foot or car patrols is by itself unlikely to reduce crime; nor does there seem much scope for a general improvement in detection rates’. Sir Robert Mark, the Met’s Commissioner, noted that police numbers had little effect on crime rates and ‘seen objectively against the background and problems of 50 million people it [crime] is not even amongst the more serious of our difficulties’. The idea that the present government’s prison building programme and tougher sentencing will reduce victimisation and increase public protection is also a fallacy. In 1983, Leon Brittan instigated the biggest prison building programme of the twentieth century, alongside a tougher sentencing regime. It failed. In 1995, Michael Howard declared that ‘prison works’. He was wrong. There are no demonstrable relationships between prison numbers and recorded crime rates.

Cutting Social Support

By contrast, and to take the example of the offence category exploited by Priti Patel as she lauded the bravery of the police, knife crime may be a significant social problem but neither it, nor the conventional crime problem in general, will be solved by the blitzkrieg of criminalisation, punishment and pain rolled out in recent weeks. It is widely accepted that funding for early intervention services can prevent the numbers of young people finding themselves at risk of victimisation and offending. However, as Action for Children, the Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau recently revealed, “between 2010-11 and 2015-16, spending on early intervention fell in real terms by 40%”, while Sure Start centres had their budgets halved in the 8 years to 2016. Meanwhile, Tim Bateman has highlighted “a massive contraction in youth service provision, leading to a sharp decline in the availability of constructive activities for young people, resulting in many of them spending more time on the street where risks may be higher”. Johnson and Patel have said nothing about reversing any of these spending cuts.

Crimes of the Rich and Powerful

Nor will the blitz on crime deal with rampant state-corporate criminality. It will not address income tax avoidance and evasion, which even on the Government’s own “laughable” estimate now stands at a record £35 billion per annum, nor the 36,000 deaths each year which the Government links to air pollution in the UK in its recently revised downwards estimate, nor the 50,000 work related deaths which occur year in, year in out in one of the wealthiest economies in the world. The cultures of immunity and impunity which allows the rich and powerful to engage in routine criminal activity will continue to be encouraged: programmes of deregulation and non-enforcement of law against businesses have been institutionalised since 2010 to the point where, for example, there are no officers to enforce law in some local authority areas, where some regulation has been privatised, and where prosecution in some areas are now non-existent. The changes will do little, if anything, to reduce the rampant levels of domestic and sexual violence against women, nor far-right extremism and racist attacks, nor homophobic violence, nor will they introduce desperately needed structures of democratic accountability into the criminal justice system.

What they will do, if these policy turns really do end up meeting the stated aim of putting 10,000 more people in prison, is exacerbate the dramatic levels of violence in British prisons. Therein, as the charity INQUEST recently noted on the basis of the Ministry of Justice’s own data, the 12 months to July 2019 showed: 86 self-inflicted deaths, up 6% from 81 in the previous year – that is, one every four days – of 309 deaths in prison in total. This is not to mention, in a 12 month period, that self-harm levels had “increased by 24% from the previous year, once again reaching record highs … In the child and youth prison estate, there was a 30% increase in self-harm incidents.”

Joe and Steve blog picture 2

Labour’s Political Opportunism

And what has the Labour Party had to say about this law and order noise, and the grim threat it poses to the already-restricted rights and liberties of those powerless communities and groups it purports to represent? Not surprisingly, the answer is very little. Labour’s response has been based on political opportunism. And so while Diane Abbott has pointed to some of the problems in the “Draconian approach” to the use of stop and search, Labour has failed to seriously contest the government’s announcements. There has been no informed critique of the prison building programme or of tougher sentencing or of the increase in police numbers. There has been no obvious strategy to curtail the brutal exercise of state power and to hold to account those state servants who routinely abuse this power through the capricious discretion they have on the streets and behind prison walls. In fact, Labour’s policy has been to restore police numbers to their pre-cuts level, ignoring the criminological research which, as noted above, shows the negligible impact the police have on conventional crime. What the party has demanded is an inquiry into the welfare and morale of police officers despite the fact that, compared with other jobs, policing is a relatively safe occupation. Again, as noted above, the systemic lack of health and safety is a key factor in the shameful levels of self-harm and deaths in custody. On this, there is silence. Labour has allowed the government to articulate, effectively unchallenged, its toxic, punitive agenda. Such timidity should not be surprising; Labour has an abysmal track record on law and order when in government, reproducing the Tories’ relentless focus on working class crime and turning a blind eye to the systemic abuses of the state and the institutionalised criminality of the rich and powerful.


In the world-view of Johnson and his media and political acolytes, ramping up the crime, law and order rhetoric is vote-winner, a distraction from the Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit, and the tooling-up of the state for post-Brexit disorder. In general terms, the Johnson government’s strategy can be understood as consolidating still further, in Stuart Hall’s words, the ‘[p]hilisitne barbarism’ begun under the first Thatcher government. It is an ideological strategy, a form of ‘regressive modernisation’, designed to ‘”educate” and discipline the society into a particularly regressive form of modernity, by paradoxically, dragging it backwards through an equally regressive version of the past‘. This regression will have dire consequences for communities and groups already stricken by the pitiless social and economic policies pursued in the last decade, and indeed, before. In 1972, the great American writer James Baldwin pointed out that ‘ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have’. Fifty years on, Baldwin’s eloquent statement provides a fitting testimony to the cynicism, hypocrisy and naked self-interest inexorably driving the government’s law and order bandwagon. Inevitably, this will be followed by the ruthless rolling out of state power in order to maximise and maintain the corrosively exploitative, immoral and amoral neoliberal social order. However, for all its material and ideological power, it is contradictory and, just like the Prime Minister and his government, remains open to contestation and resistance. In these bleakest of times, it is important to remember and reflect on this point.


This article has been simultaneously published by the Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative at The Open University

Part of the title of this article is from the title of the track by The Clash, ‘Clampdown’, on their 1979 London Calling album.



Reforming Probation: Protecting the Private, Failing the Public

Lol Burke, Liverpool John Moores University and Steve Collett, former Cheshire Probation Chief Officer and Honorary Fellow Liverpool John Moores University

At a critical research seminar for the Centre for the Study of Crime, Criminalisation and Social Exclusion in February 2019, we discussed the damage done by the outsourcing of probation services under the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation initiative. In our book, Delivering Rehabilitation, we predicted its failure, not out of any great intellectual insights or skills of prophesy but because it simply did not make practical or organisational sense. The announcement then in May of the Government’s response to the Strengthen Probation, Building Confidence consultation therefore seemed an encouraging step in the right direction. It was widely reported in the media as marking the renationalisation of the probation service. The return to an integrated model of probation supervision was viewed by many as the death knell for Chris Grayling’s ideologically-driven transforming Rehabilitation strategy published in 2012, which has been laid bare by the evidence-based criticism not only of partners and stakeholders involved in delivering criminal justice rehabilitation but by the combined onslaught of the Public Accounts Committee, the Justice Select Committee, the National Audit Office and the Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectorate of Probation. In her final annual report as HM Inspector of Probation, Glenys Stacey went as far as to describe the current arrangements as being ‘irredeemably flawed‘.

Government Duplicity

In our view, there is a level of duplicity in the Government’s response to the Strengthening Probation, Building Confidence Consultation document as was outlined in the Guardian’s excellent leader ‘Payment by unmeasurable results is a privatisation beyond satire’ (The Guardian, 17 May 2019). Whilst the current Justice Secretary, David Gauke, accepts that the allocation of those under supervision (based on measures of risk) between the public sector National Probation Service and private sector Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) has been disastrous, leading to bureaucratic inefficiency, loss of sentencer confidence and ineffectiveness in protecting the public from serious crime, his vision for the future retains a public/private separation of key elements of supervision. In effect, the private sector will be handed, on our estimation, about 35% of the total resources available for the delivery of accredited programme interventions and unpaid work. The Government’s response claims that ‘[p]rivate and voluntary sector organisations have demonstrated their strength in delivering interventions’. However, HM Inspectorate of Probation’s analysis of the availability and delivery of interventions found that sufficient interventions had been delivered in less than half of the cases in which it was deemed a priority and that the support provided by contracted providers was less likely to be judged sufficient for supporting the desistance of service users and the safety of other people compared to arrangements that were partnership based.

Gauke’s Plans

The new regional structure for probation services will do nothing to improve sentencer confidence, it will maintain bureaucratic duplication and inefficiencies and, most importantly, it will frustrate cooperation and partnership at the local level that is essential to effective rehabilitative endeavours with those who offend. We can also be sure that those small, local voluntary and community sector organisations who can offer so much in the way of innovative help to individuals in trouble, will be squeezed out by the large private sector Innovation Partners unless they can contribute to the profits of these global players. As the Guardian leader so aptly remarked, ‘It looks as if ministers are trying to recycle the ideology in a new form while pretending to be doing something more strategic’.

Gauke’s plans are, in reality, a return to the vision outlined in New Labour’s Carter Report which began in earnest the desire to split probation between the public and private sectors through a process of contestability whereby the Probation Service would have to compete with the private sector for contracts. Since then, probation has been ill served by a succession of Labour, Coalition and Tory administrations. Grayling was simply the worst of a long line of ministers who failed to understand the complexity of helping those who offend whilst protecting the public from serious, conventional crime.

A Different Future

Instead of listening to the siren voices of the global service industry, the Justice Secretary would be better served by listening to those front-line staff, those subject to their supervisory oversight, and informed stakeholders, all of whom have been ill-served by the on-going debacle of probation ‘reform’. There is currently a national shortage of professional probation staff, especially those mainly responsible for more complex and demanding casework (probation officers) and many of those leaving the service have left the profession itself. High workloads and the overriding need to meet transaction-based performance targets have led to professional standards being compromised and in what has been a series of damning reports, HMI Probation reported that professional ethics had been compromised, and ‘immutable lines crossed because of commercial pressures’.

In addition, there is some evidence that deepening cuts, precarious working environments, and increasingly unmanageable caseloads amount to ‘a pervasive form of systemic workplace harm, resulting in mental health issues, stress, and professional dissatisfaction’. Moreover, the authors go on to claim that this ‘is symptomatic and reflective of a deeper underlying cause: namely, the profit motive that underpins the privatisation of public service work’. In this respect, Strengthening Probation: Building Confidence can be viewed as yet another example of the neoliberal mindset as applied to the criminal justice system which has been reinforced by the wider politics of austerity. Taken together, they have further reduced the capacity of the criminal justice system to protect the public, undermined trust in sentencing, fundamentally weakened supportive elements of civil society and diminished professional occupational cultures to make positive interventions into the lives of those sentenced by the courts (Burke and Collett, forthcoming).


Burke , L. and Collett, S. (forthcoming) ‘The Gift Relationship: What we lose when rehabilitation is privatised’ in Bean, P. (ed) Privatisation and Criminal Justice. Abingdon: Routledge.
The Guardian (2019) Payment by unmeasurable results is a privatisation beyond satire. Published 17 May.



Safety Last! Deaths and Self-Harm in Prisons

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

Every four days, a person in prison takes their own life. Levels of distress have never been higher with more than 152 recorded incidents of self-harm in prison every day. The Government have long been on notice about the perilous state of our prisons. Yet, life-saving recommendations from inquests and oversight bodies are systematically ignored. That the historically high numbers of deaths are allowed to continue is a national scandal. Prison safety cannot be resolved by framing it as a drugs problem or weaponising staff with PAVA spray. Punitive responses have not worked and will not work. Bold and decisive action is needed to tackle sentencing policy; reducing prison numbers; and redirecting resources to community services. Deborah Coles, Director, INQUEST. 

This quote is taken from a press release distributed by the charity INQUEST. It was written in response to the latest Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statistics on prison safety. The statistics revealed appalling and offensive levels of deaths and self-harm in prison. In the 12 months up to March 2019, 317 prisoners died inside, an increase of 18 on the previous year. Eighty seven deaths were self-inflicted, up from 73 in the same period. There were a record number of incidents of self-harm – 55,598 – a rise of 25% from 2017. Self-harm was highly gendered. In male prisons, there were 570 incidents per 1000 prisoners. In women’s prisons, the rate was an astonishing 2675 per 1000 women.

There were 164 deaths from ‘natural causes’. However, as INQUEST has noted, the idea that a death in prison can be ‘natural’ is highly debatable:

“natural cause” deaths (as defined by the Ministry of Justice) are the leading cause of mortality in prisons. In 2017, the “natural cause” death rate was 2.15 deaths per 1,000 prisoners. This is often attributed to the ageing prison population….INQUEST’s monitoring, casework and evidence from inquests and official reports, suggests that many people are dying prematurely and unnecessarily due to inadequate healthcare provision.

The MoJ’s publication also contained data on prison assaults. In 2018, there were 34,223 assaults by prisoners on prisoners and by prisoners on staff. Just under 4000 (11%) were classified as serious. It is worth noting that the institutional processes involved in the reporting, recording and collation of prison assault statistics have changed over time. As with the crime statistics, more generally, they should be approached with caution with respect to making definitive claims about upward or downward trends.  It is also worth noting that no mention was made of assaults on prisoners by staff.

Coincidently – or not – on the day the safety statistics were published, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its analysis of the latest crime statistics. According to the ONS, homicides were at a 10 year high and knife crime was rising. Crucially, it was the debate about violent crime which dominated the news when both sets of statistics were released. The degradation, despair and deaths of prisoners, and the state’s lamentable failure to fulfill its duty of care towards them, were missing from the news coverage.

A Statistical Sleight of Hand

There were significant problems with how the statistics were presented. First, the MoJ subsumed different forms of behaviour – self-inflicted death, self-harm and assaults – under the general heading of ‘safety’. However, the roots, context and motivation involved in a prisoner choosing to kill, or self-harm him or herself, is clearly different from a prisoner who engages in assault. That nuanced understanding of the complexities, fragilities, despair and emotions of human behaviour, operating in the often-desperate context of the power networks of the modern prison, was missing. Instead, it was the cold, calculated ‘science’ of the quantitative statistics around violent crime which dominated the news.

Second, presenting the statistics on safety in one publication inevitably meant that the media uncritically concentrated on the wider crime statistics, and/or the statistics involving prisoner on prisoner and prisoner on staff assaults. This, in turn, meant that the safety of prisoners, and their experiences of state violence, and the everyday brutal harms generated by the prison environment and culture, were ignored. Even so-called liberal media outlets were culpable. The safety statistics were ignored by Channel 4 News on the night they were published. The following day’s hard copy of the Guardian contained stories about a number of key social issues: cladding, extinction rebellion and the gender pay gap. However, there were also a number of depressingly frivolous stories:  the athlete Mo Farah’s puerile dispute with another athlete; a discussion about who was to star in the new, anachronistic James Bond film; and an indescribably boring interview with the musician Pete Doherty. There was nothing about prisoners’ deaths or self-harm.

The report by the ONS was covered by the Guardian and in the early evening news summary on BBC Radio 4. Knife crime and homicides were highlighted, but, again, there was no discussion about prison deaths and self-harm. This pattern was repeated on the BBC’s main broadcast at 10.00pm. The Times reported the story under the banner headline Violence in Prisons at a Record High[i]. The short article devoted nearly 150 words to assaults in prison and 50 to self-inflicted deaths and self-harm.

Clearly, the examples above are neither a complete nor a random sample of all of the media outlets in the immediate hours and days after the statistics were published. However, they do provide a snapshot of a penal reality which was constructed in very precise terms built around what was and what was not considered newsworthy and what constituted, and what did not constitute, a human life that was worthy of empathy, sympathy and respect. In uncritically concentrating on the statistics around violent crime, the media reproduced a distorted picture about the nature and extent of violence and reinforced the narrow, legalistic, political and commonsense narratives, around how violence and dangerousness are defined and understood both inside and outside of prisons.

Finally, the statistics sanctified the work of prison officers and highlighted the dangers they faced daily. So while there are assaults against some staff, the collation of the statistics is complicated. As the MoJ pointed out in the latest safety bulletin: ‘[there] was a change in how staff assaults have been recorded. This has simplified how incidents involving staff are identified, however it is possible this has increased the recording of incidents’ (emphasis added). This warning about the validity of the statistics was ignored by the media.

It is also worth repeating that occupational danger is much more complex than the surface statistics indicate. For example, as David Scott has noted, eight prison officers have died in the course of their duties since 1850. Additionally, the number of days lost through prison staff being absent from work as a result of assaults is minute compared with the number of days lost through a range of other health and safety issues such as musculoskeletal problems, sickness, stress, bullying by managers, anxiety and depression. And while prison staff sometimes might find themselves in dangerous situations, the dangers to health and safety confronting other occupational groups, including dying at work, is higher compared with the dangers facing prison staff. Again, these issues were ignored.


The MoJ statistics illustrate three things. First, prisons are dangerous, demoralising and harmful to prisoners. Second, the state has lamentably failed in its duty of care towards them. Third, the response of successive governments – Coalition, Conservative and Labour – to self-inflicted deaths and self-harm has been abject. Political parties have neither the desire, utopian vision nor the policies to address these issues. At the same time, state servants remain unaccountable. Scandalously and shamefully, recommendations made by official bodies such as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and coroners, designed to prevent future deaths, have simply been ignored.

The abject response from the political parties means that profound questions about prison safety, and the shuddering failure of penal policy more generally, are never asked with the result that prisoners will continue to die needlessly or damage themselves through self-harm. Why is there little or no discussion about these issues? Why is there a cluelessness, an obliviousness and, above all, an ignorance about the crushing harms prisons engender which arise from insidious, systemic processes of dehumanisation which, like pliers, bend the minds, and shape the consciousness of the confined, in profoundly negative and detrimental ways? Who benefits, materially and ideologically, from socially constructing the prison as a perennially dangerous place for staff?  Why are recommendations from official inquiries systematically ignored? Why are alternative, radical policies designed to prevent deaths, such as those proposed by INQUEST, also ignored, particularly by those politicians responsible for prisons? Are careers more important than lives?

At this point in time, the political/state/media complex stands indicted for its moral and political failure to ask these questions. Yet they need to be asked and answered, if the offensive rates of self-harm are to be reduced, lives saved and future deaths prevented.

[i] Thanks to Rebecca Roberts of INQUEST for pointing this article out to me.

Thanks also to Kym Atkinson and David Scott for their comments on this blog.


Shredding Human Beings: Death and Self-Harm in Prisons

Joe Sim is Professor of Criminology, Liverpool John Moores University

The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), concerning deaths and self-harm in prison, indicate that the institution remains lethal for those to whom the state supposedly owes a duty of care. The figures are scandalous and are a scathing indictment of the abject failure of penal policy in England and Wales, particularly around the health and safety of prisoners.

Between December 2017 and December 2018, there were 325 deaths, a rise of 10%. Ninety two of these deaths were self-inflicted, up from 70. Three involved women, up from 2. There were 162 deaths from ‘natural causes’, compared with 191 the previous year. The figures are incomplete. In 2018, 67 deaths were recorded as ‘other’, 54 of which were ‘awaiting further classification’. This means that the number of deaths in particular categories may increase, including ‘natural deaths’.  

In the toxic context of the prison environment, the idea of a ‘natural death’ is highly questionable. For the charity INQUEST, ‘no death in prison is natural’ as the ‘failure to treat prisoners with decency, humanity and compassion is a “consistent feature” of deaths [inside]’, a point supported by the Parliamentary Health and Social Care Committee in a report published at the end of 2018 .

Between September 2017 and September 2018, there were a record number of incidents of self-harm – 52,814, or approximately 145 each day – an increase of 23%. Self-harm is highly gendered. The rate for male prisoners was 540 incidents per 1000 men, also up by 23%. In women’s prisons, the rate was an astonishing 2,465 incidents per 1000 women, a rise of 20%

The Official Response: Abject and Complacent

The government has no answer to the deaths and self-harm occurring in prisons except to introduce new, repressive measures such as arming staff with pepper spray, at a cost of 2 million pounds. It is an insidious development which will only further militarize prisons. According to a former prison governor, it will not work, and could make the problems inside worse.  

INQUEST’s casework reveals that many deaths are eminently preventable. However, endlessly repeated institutionalized failures – the management of self-harm and suicide, drug prescribing processes, poor communications and record keeping, inadequate healthcare and systemic, procedural failures and delays[i] ensure that the death rates remain high.

For the state, the deplorable number of deaths is easily explained: it is about the pathology of the individuals involved, the risk they pose to themselves or bureaucratic inefficiency. These stock phrases are uncritically and endlessly rolled out. However, they are too simplistic and distract attention away from the pathological and harm-inducing nature of the prison regime itself which makes all prisoners vulnerable, a point made by Lord Harris in his review of deaths in custody involving 18-24 year olds.

This bleak, and entirely avoidable, situation is compounded by the systemic indifference towards prisoners, particularly towards those who might be in distress. Basic, humane procedures such as answering cell bells are not followed. In 2018, this was highlighted by the Prison Inspectorate in a devastating report on Liverpool prison. Liverpool was not understaffed. Therefore, low staffing levels, contrary to the line propagated by the Prison Officers Association, and an uncritical, ill-informed mass media, had nothing to do with officers not attending to the prisoners. Rather, the report was an indictment of this prison’s immoral treatment, and systemic, uncaring attitude towards those to whom they owed a duty of care.

The MoJ figures illustrate, in the starkest possible terms, the government’s lamentable failure to fulfil this duty of care towards the health, safety and welfare of prisoners[ii]. Additionally, the ongoing failure to implement recommendations from the Prison Inspectorate, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and coroners, designed to ensure prisoner safety, and some measure of accountability, has intensified the problem still further and has engendered a culture of immunity and impunity which leaves state servants, and the institutions themselves, effectively beyond reproach. If prisoners are supposed to be responsible for their actions, and are to be held accountable for them, why is the same criterion not used when state servants fail in their duty of care towards prisoners and ignore the majority of official recommendations designed to ensure that prisoners are protected?

Ministers have simply ignored these points. The ‘imminent and foreseeable harm’[iii] the prison generates on a daily basis has been marginalised. Instead, the government has steadfastly focused on the issue of drugs and violence inside, particularly the alleged rise in violence towards prison staff which has also dominated the media debate. However, this is a highly complex issue which the MoJ itself has recognized in noting that the process of recording assaults on staff changed in April 2017, meaning that it was ‘possible this has increased the reporting of incidents’. 

Even if assaults on staff were increasing, the numbers of days lost at work through violence is miniscule compared with the number of days lost through other health and safety issues such as musculoskeletal problems, depression, sickness, stress, bullying by managers, anxiety and nervous debility. If the government is serious about violence towards staff, ministers should consider the overall harms the prison regime generates for staff, of which violence is one aspect. They might also consider the issue of violence by staff against prisoners which both groups have identified as an issue which has a long history.

Additionally, Rory Stewart, the Prisons Minister, has said that he will resign if the levels of drug use and violence do not improve in 10 prisons targeted by the government. This ‘politically irrelevant’ stunt will make no difference. His ‘threat will only distort the issue further’[iv]. It reduces the complex problems in prisons to a superficial discussion about the actions and personality of the individual who holds political office while leaving in place, undisturbed and unaccountable, the corrosive structures of penal power and the discretionary exercise of this power by prison officers on the landings. It is a power structure which induces feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, terror and trauma in the lives of prisoners, with often-catastrophic results for them and their families. That is the issue the minister should be addressing.

A Deeply Embedded Crisis

The MoJ statistics provide a stark and brutal illustration of a system in deep crisis. Death and self-harm are at the sharp end of a continuum of penal violence which labels and relegates prisoners to an animalistic status and legitimates an uncaring, often-unforgiving, punitive response towards them.

The statistics were published in the same week it was announced that a prisoner in Wormwood Scrubs, (who was serving a short sentence for a benefits offence for which he insisted he was wrongly convicted), was suing the prison service for post-traumatic stress disorder due to the constant presence of rats in his cell which ran across his body and which induced nightmares, depression and a skin rash. In 2015, this was identified by the Inspectorate as a significant problem. By 2019, nothing had changed, the rodents were not only in the cells but also in the servery area where prisoners received their meals.

At the same time, the Inspectorate, following the publication of devastating reports on the desperate state of Liverpool, Nottingham, Exeter and Birmingham prisons, published another damning report, this time on Bedford. Here too there was a rodent problem. During the inspection, a prisoner in segregation ‘caught and killed a number of rats in his cell…’.

In their previous inspection, the Inspectorate made 68 recommendations for improving Bedford. In the latest report, they noted that nineteen recommendations were achieved, five were partially achieved and 44 – 68% – were not achieved. Astonishingly, out of 10 recommendations they made about purposeful activity, where prisoners ‘are expected to engage in activity that is likely to benefit them’ one was achieved while nine – 90% – were not achieved. In other words, the mechanisms designed to ensure some form of accountability, and to improve the lives of prisoners, were simply ignored by prison managers and staff, a situation not unique to Bedford but which is intrinsic to how many prisons are operating.

According to the Inspectorate, one of the four tests of a healthy prison is to ensure that ‘prisoners, particularly the most vulnerable, are held safely’. However, out of the 19 recommendations made about safety after their previous inspection, 5 were achieved, 2 were partially achieved while 12 – 63% – were not achieved. The Inspectorate noted that there had been five self-inflicted deaths since 2016 while the rate of self-harm incidents ‘had increased substantially’. In the previous six months, there were 163 incidents which was higher than comparable prisons. The report noted that ‘most prisoners in crisis said that they did not feel well cared for. They faced living in grimy conditions with little time unlocked and hardly anything to do’. 

The lack of safety was compounded by poor living conditions. One prisoner was found in a cell with a bed, a broken window and no other furniture. There was a huge backlog of repairs, some stretching back to 2017. Towels and sheets were changed every four weeks. Poignantly, and contrary to political and popular perceptions that those inside selfishly and violently look after themselves, disabled prisoners:

….relied on the goodwill and friendship of other prisoners to get their basic needs met. Two prisoners who were amputees were unable to shower regularly as they didn’t have the necessary adaptations. One said he had only five showers this year [2018] and to wash himself he had to sit on the floor of his cell and try to splash water on himself from the sink.


The modern prison is a warehousing wasteland. Prisoners are transformed into abstract statistics where the poverty and pain involved in daily survival undermines hope for the future, a point brilliantly made in Lisa Stevenson’s study of self-inflicted deaths amongst the Inuit people. Her insights can be applied to the system-induced degradation experienced by prisoners and the ‘dissolution of the self’ the prison generates.  

Politicians from both the major parties should be deeply ashamed of the latest safety statistics and the existence of corrosive institutions like Bedford. However, whether they are willing to listen to those who advocate radical alternatives, rather than simply hear the repetitive echoes of their own, tired voices, is a moot point. Freeing themselves from the tribal shackles of political opportunism, and the unprincipled, law and order race to the bottom which they have evangelically pursued for decades, would be a good place to start.  Radical action – stopping building prisons, changing the harsh sentencing culture that currently prevails, developing well-funded alternatives to custody operated by well-trained staff, visualizing a prison system based on an ethics of care, social justice and democratic accountability, placing questions of social harm, protection and safety at the centre of criminal justice policy and doing something meaningful about the rampant criminality of the powerful – needs to be taken if the mistakes of the past are not to be endlessly and mindlessly repeated. Anything less, and prisons will continue to be places of ‘punishment for misery’. As the safety statistics indicated, this means living with the dire consequences that flow from this brutal state of affairs. 

Thanks to Katie Tucker for her comments on an earlier draft of this blog.

i.These points are taken from a letter to the Guardian co-written with Deborah Coles from INQUEST and Steve Tombs from the Open University.
ii. See point 1 above.
iii. This was a phrase used by Tessa Kahn on Channel 4 News on 7th August 2018 which seemed highly applicable to prisons.
iv. Thanks to Steve Tombs and Katie Tucker for strengthening the argument here.

Offending Girls and Restorative Justice: The Relevance and Rationale of Gender-Specific Provision

Jodie Hodgson is Lecturer in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Liverpool

The formative experiences of girls who come into contact with the youth justice service are often characterised by inequalities, social injustice and disadvantage. Furthermore, empirical research has revealed the ‘importance of victimisation in the aetiology of young women’s offending’ and the prevalent role gendered violence and victimisation plays in shaping the backgrounds of girls in the youth justice system. Therefore, based upon the extent to which the individual narratives of girls who enter the system are impacted by such issues, it becomes evident that they are subject to risks and vulnerabilities which determine the need to adopt a ‘distinctive gender-sensitive approach’ to working with girls who offend.

However, the relevance and rationale of gender-specific approaches to working with girls has continued to remain at the periphery of restorative justice discourse. When considering the development of restorative justice policy and practice, it is apparent that restorative justice interventions, used within the youth justice system continue to operate outside of a gender-specific or gender-sensitive framework. Subsequently, they fail to recognise the ways in which the social construction of gender shapes the lives of girls and is implicated within their offending behaviour and experiences of criminalisation.

Since its implementation as a mainstream response to youth offending, restorative justice has gained momentum as an alternative approach to delivering justice. Whilst an evidence base has emerged which reveals the positive impact restorative interventions can have on recidivism and victim satisfaction, critical perspectives and empirical research which, articulate the more problematic side to restorative justice practices used with young offenders, have also developed.

Although there is now a substantial body of literature concerning youth offending and restorative justice, it is suggested that ‘scant attention has been paid to gender-based variation’ and almost all feminist discussions relating to the role of gender in restorative justice ‘address the ways in which it may help or hinder female victims . . . [and] few have ventured to consider how it may help or hinder female offenders’. Official policy discourse has remained, predominantly, silent on issues of gender and at present there is ‘no evaluation of the ‘’effectiveness’’ of restorative justice as a response to young female offenders’. As such, the extent to which restorative justice policy and practice is able to effectively respond to the gender-specific needs of girls has been alarmingly neglected.

Having undertaken qualitative research with girls who have participated in restorative justice, victim-offender conferencing, and restorative justice practitioners working within the youth offending service, my own research has identified a number of salient issues to consider when responding to girls’ offending behaviour through restorative justice interventions.


My research found that girls participating in restorative justice conferencing are likely to be stigmatised for their offending behaviour as it is viewed as a transgression of gender norms and expectations in relation to the ideals of femininity. It was suggested, by the practitioners interviewed, that the presence of such stigma could impact on their self-esteem whilst also affecting the way they are responded to by others participating in the conference. The findings also indicated that experiences of stigma may have implications for girls’ feelings of shame around their offending behaviour, evoked during the restorative justice conference, and how these feelings are experienced and internalised.


The emotion of shame is considered to be an integral element underpinning restorative justice conferencing. This is primarily because the theoretical premise upon which restorative justice is based has become closely associated with Braithwaite’s (1989) Reintegrative Shaming Theory (RIST) (Marshall, 1999). The theory suggests that, coming face to face with the victim of their offence, and learning about the harm caused by their behaviour, will evoke shame within those charged with an offence. Braithwaite suggests this experience of shame will not only prevent the individual from re-offending but will also provide the opportunity for them to repair the harm caused by their offending thereby reintegrating them back into the community.

The majority of the girls interviewed described experiencing feelings of shame during the restorative justice conference. This research suggests that there is the potential for these experiences of shame to be affected by the girls’ experiences of stigma following their offending behaviour. This is because the stigma attached to their identity, as a result of transgressing gender norms, is inextricably linked to their offending behaviour.

As these transgressions of femininity are not the focus of the restorative justice conference, the opportunity for these transgressions to be contested by girls in order for them to reject the stigma attached to their identity is not provided. Therefore, their experience of shame during the restorative justice conference could potentially exacerbate their stigmatised identity. This argument highlights a clear distinction with regards to girls’ experiences of shame in a restorative justice conference as opposed to boys.

The negative implications of shame

The empirical data, provided by practitioners participating in this research study, suggested that girls internalise shame differently compared to young males, which exacerbates feelings of self-blame for their offending behaviour. Furthermore, practitioners suggested that girls’ feelings of shame, expressed within a restorative justice conference, could be associated with previous negative experiences such as abuse or victimisation in their formative years.

It was further articulated that the association of shame with previous negative experiences could, in turn, instigate strategies to cope with these feelings, such as self-harming and self-destructive behaviours. Practitioners suggested that such behaviours could be used as a means to manage the emotional pain associated with feelings of shame, inducing negative implications for girls’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

Furthermore, the association of shame with previous negative experiences could, in turn, instigate strategies to cope with these feelings, such as self-harming and self-destructive behaviours. Practitioners suggested that such behaviours could be used as a means to manage the emotional pain associated with feelings of shame, inducing negative implications for girls’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

The empirical findings from this research study suggest that we need to reconsider the appropriateness of restorative justice conferencing for girls and young women within the youth justice system. The issues raised are cross-cutting and relevant to the youth justice service and determine the need to incorporate gender-specific provision into restorative justice policy and practice, as a matter of urgency, if this approach to delivering justice is to be of benefit to those involved.

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