And the tragedy is that those in power seem little inclined to address it


When Nick Hardwick, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, reported a year ago on the state of the nation’s jails,  he warned: “The cracks are beginning to show.” Since then those cracks have widened dramatically, leaving the country with a prison system perpetually on the brink of crisis, with growing levels of violence, self-harm and suicide, as budgets are cut and numbers of inmates continue to grow.

The simmering tensions behind bars have sporadically boiled over into minor outbreaks of trouble – albeit swiftly contained by the highly efficient and increasingly experienced police unit which deals with prison disturbances. It is to the credit of prison staff that a full-blown riot has not erupted in any of the under-resourced and over-populated men’s jails in England and Wales, but the details of Mr Hardwick’s report are a grim reminder of the pressures faced by staff and offenders alike.

Suicide rates are up by 69 per cent since Mr Hardwick first warned of the cracks in the system, levels of serious assaults are up by 38 per cent and the proportion of jails judged to be safe is dropping all the time. The strains are illustrated by his disclosure of a near-doubling this year in numbers of “incidents at height” – episodes in which inmates climb on the netting or railings between wings in the hope they will be segregated and then transferred to “safer” prisons.

It is impossible to disconnect the deteriorating safety standards and the increase in violence from a backdrop of £84m in cuts to public sector prison running costs and the closure of older jails and their replacement with cheaper places elsewhere. The demands for cuts to prison budgets look certain to continue whichever party is in power the next time Mr Hardwick reports.

Staffing cuts have led to a significant loss of more experienced officers and the scrapping of rehabilitation schemes and purposeful activity. It is now common for an offender to be locked up for 20 hours a day – in extreme cases for 23 hours – which is hardly calculated to help them address their offending behaviour and become constructive members of society upon their release. And yet the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, presses ahead with further reforms, including the requirement for short-term prisoners to spend the final months of their sentence in “resettlement prisons” nearer their homes and a tightening of the rules on inmates’ privileges. These changes add to the pressures on the smaller numbers of staff on the front line as well as the managers moving growing numbers of prisoners around the system.

Despite its warm words about reducing reoffending, the Government’s main response to the growing prison population, which has actually risen by a further 290 since the end of the period examined by Mr Hardwick, has been to scrabble around to find extra space for the new arrivals. There have been welcome improvements in women’s jails and youth custody, but its approach has been characterised by crisis management and a denial that its stewardship of the prison system has contributed to its chronic problems. The time has surely come for a fundamental rethink of how this country responds to recidivism. It can hardly be right that the incarceration rates in England and Wales are only exceeded in Europe by Russia and Azerbaijan (and are little better in Scotland).

A move which could deliver a decisive shock to the system would be an instruction to courts not to imprison offenders who would otherwise be jailed for six months or less. Don’t expect that to happen before a general election in which politicians will be desperate not to appear weak on crime.

Locked-in syndrome: Britain’s prisons are a national scandal