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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Jan-18 > I predict a riot

I predict a riot

Britain’s prisons are failing and the government has no plan

Words are no longer adequate to discuss the simmering conditions inside our prisons, so let’s try a few numbers. In 2010, 58 prisoners in England and Wales killed themselves. Last year, the number was 199—that’s an increase from about one suicide a week to approaching four. Suicide, of course, is only ever the tip of an iceberg of misery. In 2010, there were 26,979 recorded incidents of self-harm; last year there were over 40,000. And what about violence that turns outwards instead of in? In 2010, there were 2,848 recorded assaults on prison staff and 11,244 inmate-on-inmate assaults. Last year those numbers were 6,844 and 19,088 respectively.

In 2015-16 almost 21,000 prisoners were held in overcrowded accommodation, many doubling up in cells designed for one. In some prisons, the ratio of prisoners to staff officers is as high as 30:1—fully three times the level of staffing that many of the experts suggest is wise. The output of this brutal, broken system remains stubbornly unreformed. Forty-four per cent of adults are reconvicted within one year, and that figure rises to 59 per cent for those serving futile short spells. Heaven knows what it would rise to if we were able to include all those who reoffend but don’t get caught.

Every available statistic shows a system that is inexorably lurching from chronic failure towards acute crisis. This autumn, 10 groups of anti-riot officers were sent to Long Lartin prison in Worcestershire after 80 prisoners took over a maximum security wing housing some of the most violent offenders in the country. That came almost a year after a riot at Birmingham’s main prison, when armed police were posted outside in case inmates escaped. One former prisoner told me starkly where all this is headed: “We are going to have major prison riots in which people will die”, he said. “Officers will be taken hostage, tortured and murdered. It’s going to happen.”

This diabolical pass has been reached in a fast-ageing society that is a good deal more law abiding than it was a generation ago. So how on Earth did we get here? There are two halves to the answer—a slow story of rising recourse to custody over many decades, and a much more recent tale of scrambling to meet the vast demand with reduced resources.

We gradually refrained from the routine of thrashing and killing criminals over the 19th century, and the impulse to lock up ever-more citizens did not kick in for a while. During the first half of the 20th century, the prison population was broadly stable; during the interwar years it actually fell. As late as the mid-1950s, the total prison population was just 20,000. It is now over four times larger. But the use of prison began to pick up in that post-war period. That may seem like an oddity, since these were years of full employment, times when most young men had spent time in the army, and the rate of crime was both low and stable.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s January 2018 issue: Five writers attempt to plot the impending advances in shopping, politics, sex, food and computing through 2018. James Plunkett looks at shopping and explains how personalised prices will hand even more power to the big companies; Theo Bertram outlines why political volatility is here to stay and what it means for us; Kate Devlin argues that sex robots are only a part of the impending sexual revolution; Stephanie Boland outlines why we’ll all end up eating lab grown food; and Jay Elwes explains the next steps in our computing quantum leap. Elsewhere in the issue: Dani Rodrik uncovers the truth behind the great globalisation lie—there were always going to be losers, Iona Craig delves into the war in Yemen—the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, Chris Tilbury explains why Britain urgently needs a plan for its failing prisons