The latest ‘spat’ between the Minister of Justice and the Shadow Minister over disturbances – or riots if you prefer – reminds me of the one between Sadiq Kahn MP and Chris Grayling MP a few years ago.
And yet in reality it is no more than a continuation failure of politicians from ALL parties to support all of the people who work in prisons.
It is a failure not only to protect the public, but also a failure and betrayal of those working in the Prison Service for nothing more than an opportunity to score points across the chamber in Westminster.
The reality is that until politicians start to address the real issue of “what exactly prisons are for” and realise that the people working with those committed by the courts to a custodial sentence requires them to have very special skills, the system will continue to fail.
I am still in contact with many of my former colleagues whose morale continues to plummet while the MP’s parade their testosterone fuelled “I’m tougher than you are” posturing.
The fact is both Conservatives and Labour are responsible for the prison services failure to deliver the reduction in re-offending and protection of the public that the public expect and deserve.
Following the riots in the early 1990’s of which HMP Manchester – or as it is still called by most people ‘Strangeways’ – was the worst the then Labour opposition blamed it on weak leadership and poor investment.
They also promised investment and support for staff and for public sector prisons.
The then Shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw was particularly incensed by the Conservative proposals to privatise public sector prisons and declared it was a flawed policy that would be stopped under a Labour Government.
The reality of course as history shows is that within weeks of the 1997 election they did a complete about turn and stated that in future all new prisons would be privately built and run.
So let’s have no more talk about who is to blame when both Labour and Conservatives have followed exactly the same ‘flawed’ policy of handing public prisons over to private enterprise.
It is a policy that has led to Britain having the largest proportion of prison places run by the private sector in the World.
It is why it is ‘bloody annoying’ that they are now saying that companies such as G4S and other companies who run privatised prisons will have to shape up or lose their contracts.
Tough talk when in opposition but the fact is that when the Conservative led Government replaced Labour in 2010 there were 11 private prisons in England and Wales and 2 in Scotland.
The Conservatives when in opposition took on the Labour policy of talking tough and opposing private prisons.
So naturally when they took over the reins of Government the first thing they did was not only to reverse their policy they actually accelerated the privatisation process and closure of public sector prisons for no other reason than to ‘reduce the burden on the public purse’.
This Conservative Government in effect has simply adopted exactly the same policies as those of the previous Labour Government.
Little if any and in fact I would argue no thought has gone into what is the purpose of prisons.
The lack of understanding by Ministers and their officials of what prison staff have to deal with day in day in looking after prisoners with multiple complex issues beggars’ belief.
Of course prisons have to be cost-effective as do all public services but the financial cost has to be weighed against the public needs.
Privatisation of the Prison Service whether new build or transferring existing public sector prisons is doomed to fail as was forecast by those who work in the system.
Increased prisoner numbers, reduced and demoralised staff and no idea of what prisons are for is not the fault of the staff.
The fault lies squarely at the feet of successive Ministers of Justice and Home Secretary’s.
There is currently over 83,500 prisoners in prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales compared to 81,000 in May 2010.
The Conservatives claim that this is proof that they are being ‘much tougher’ on crime and ‘sending more people down’ which is no more than another example of using the prison system and more importantly the prison staff for political ends.
The numbers themselves tell a different story.
Under the 1997 – 2010 Labour Government there was a huge increase in the prison population from 60,000 to 81,000 which didn’t include those in Immigration Detention Centres, Secure Psychiatric Hospitals or those who had been released on licence either tagged or on Home Detention Curfew.
Successive Governments have cut staff numbers and training – So why are politicians surprised at the outcome?
For politicians to now start throwing their arms up in horror at the disturbances or riots which are a direct result of their own Government policies over the past 20 years is hypocritical and does nothing to address the issue.
In fact I would go further and say it isn’t just hypocritical but downright dishonest and for those working in the system it is – not to be to polite about it – f****** annoying.
What about the riot at HMP Full Sutton Prison in January 1997? Conservative Government
What about the riot at HMP Ashwell Prison in April 2009 that led to it being closed? Labour Government
and what about all of the other prison riots that have taken place under successive Governments
The standard response from successive Ministers to a prison disturbance is,
“A wide-ranging inquiry into this disturbance was commissioned. The terms of reference were “To inquire into the circumstances surrounding the disturbance at HM Prison(insert name of prison and dates of disturbance/riot). To identify lessons to be learned and make recommendations as appropriate”.
The response from successive opposition Shadow Ministers is,
“This is another indication of the failure and incompetence of this Government and the Minister should consider his position
Well here’s a thought from someone who has worked in the system for all of them to think about.
Stop squabbling and acting like 5 year olds, get together, agree what prisons are for, make a long-term plan and commitment including bringing all prisons back into the public sector, and start to put public safety before your bloody egos.
It is the poor bloody infantry of Prison Officers and other staff working in the system you have created and are responsible for who have to deal with the result of your political failure”
Listen to all of the professionals who work in the prison system not only prison officers and managers but also health, probation and education staff et al, and you might just find that they have ideas that will make prisons safer, more cost-effective and deliver a reduction in re-offending rates.
The alternative is to continue to posture like peacocks on opposite sides of the despatch box while prison staff continues to labour under the lack of leadership and support they are deserve.
We quite correctly constantly hear politicians talking about how great and valued our doctors, nurses, police, fire and emergency workers are for the tremendous work they do in difficult circumstances.
When was the last time you heard any politician praise and thank those who work in prisons for the work they do with difficult people in a volatile environment every day?
Well you aren’t alone neither have I and doesn’t it demonstrate the real lack not only of support that the prison service receives but the fact they don’t even consider it is worth mentioning?