Prison conditions—is the worst still yet to come?
This month saw the publication of yet more figures showing the continuing slide in safety and decency in our prisons. Despite a small and welcome decline in the numbers of deaths in custody, the Ministry of Justice’s Safety in Custody statistics show that all other indicators have reached record highs—with record levels of self harm and record levels of assaults on both prisoners and staff.
The findings are likely to come as little surprise to supporters of the Prison Reform Trust. Our Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile has repeatedly raised the alarm over deteriorating conditions over the last five years.
The publication of the figures coincide with the appointment of a new ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice, with David Gauke replacing David Lidington as Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice; Rory Stewart replacing Sam Gyimah as prisons minister; and Lucy Frazer taking on the portfolio of Dominic Raab. Rory Stewart met PRT director, Peter Dawson, this week and David Gauke has also agreed to meet Peter and PRT’s chair, James Timpson.
Whilst ministers will be rapidly getting to grips with their new briefs, the publication of the findings of an unannounced inspection at HMP Liverpool by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, and the issuing of the first ever urgent notification by the Chief Inspector following an inspection visit to HMP Nottingham, have thrown ministers in at the deep end; charged with rectifying the mistakes of their predecessors. Writing in the Huffington Post and The Times (£), Peter Dawson cautioned that the worst may yet still be to come, with impending cuts of £600m to the Ministry of Justice’s budget.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Justice Committee following the inspection of HMP Liverpool, Rory Stewart committed to restoring decency to prisons and getting “back to basics”. Whilst undoubtedly welcome, back to basics on prison reform cannot just mean fixing broken windows and cleaning dirty and infested accommodation, necessary though this is. It must also include a concerted and sustained effort to take the pressure off overstretched prisons by reducing prison numbers to a sustainable level.
In an innovative partnership, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Oxford University and the Prison Reform Trust have come together to create new resources, including films and briefings, for criminal justice professionals to help improve their understanding of the impacts of maternal imprisonment.
It is estimated that 17,000 children every year are affected by maternal imprisonment in England and Wales. 95% (16,000) of these children are forced to leave their homes as their mother’s imprisonment leaves them without an adult to take care of them.
Despite this, no government agency has responsibility for ensuring the welfare of these children is safeguarded and their rights are protected.
Dr Shona Minson, a Research Associate at the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University has conducted research on the implications of maternal imprisonment for children. The research findings show that the experience of having a mother in prison not only negatively impacts a child’s relationship with their mother, but can affect every area of their lives including their education, health, and well being. The knock-on effects of stigmatisation may also lead to social isolation and discrimination.
The resource includes short films and briefing papers, which will be used across the criminal justice professions including by the Judicial College, Magistrates Association, Law Society, Criminal Bar Association and probation services.