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"Sentenced to filth, chaos and mayhem in our jails" by Anne Owers, The Sunday Times

24th June 2007

Last weekend, men sentenced or remanded to prison spent two nights on mattresses in court cells, unable to let their families know where they were or to leave their cells except when taken to the toilet. Some were withdrawing from drugs or alcohol. On Monday those cells held men on trial in distant courts, needing to appear there early the next day in the clothes they had slept in.

At the same time a man in Pentonville killed himself - the 44th person to do so in custody this year, 25% more than in the same period last year. Many prisons are showing signs of volatility such as disturbances and roof climbs: safety in prisons can never be taken for granted. These are the acute symptoms of a prison system in crisis.

The crisis was predicted and predictable. For a year I and prison managers have been warning, publicly and privately, that prisons were reaching breaking point. In January I said that it was usually good practice to build an ark before rather than during a flood.

Since then there has been the sound of frantic hammering and the launching of insubstantial but extremely expensive life rafts (court and police cells, costing £30m), in the Micawber-like hope that "something would turn up". It did not and the decision was finally made last week to order the early release of 25,000 prisoners.

The critical question is whether this is simply another short-term measure or whether it provides a breathing space for a new administration to get to grips with the underlying and long-standing causes of prison overcrowding.

The drivers of the next crisis are already in place. There are 9,500 lifers and indeterminate sentenced prisoners - far more than any other western European country and far beyond the capacity of the prison service that holds them, the parole board that will need to decide on their release and the probation service that will have to supervise them for lengthy periods.

In less than two years nearly 3,000 people have been given the new indeterminate public protection sentence - without any proper systems for ensuring that they can access the courses and programmes they need in order to be considered for release at the time the court envisaged. More than 5,000 prisoners have been recalled to prison.

We are all too familiar with the revolving door for short-term prisoners: reoffending and returning almost before their beds are cold. There is now a revolving door for long-sentenced prisoners, too, but one that turns much faster to admit than to discharge.

The two revolving doors are not unconnected. While prisons continue to hold people who ought to be dealt with elsewhere, they will not be capable of dealing properly with those who need to be out of society. There is a vicious circle. The more money that is siphoned into prisons for emergency short-term fixes, the less is available elsewhere.

The good news is that prisons have improved considerably over the past five or 10 years: in terms of culture, healthcare, education, drug treatment and resettlement. But the tragedy is that this may have contributed to their overuse: dealing with problems that are seen to be too difficult or costly (in the short term) to deal with in the community. Prisons are, in the main, run decently and often well; many staff work hard under pressure to support prisoners. If they become simply warehouses, we risk losing those who care about such things.

We should be equally worried about the chronic, as well as the acute, effects of overcrowding on prisons' ability to rehabilitate those we send there. Last year I warned that recent progress was under threat. This year has seen evidence of that. More than half the training prisons inspected were failing to provide enough activity to skill prisoners up for future work. These prisons have sprouted fast-build units to hold more and more inmates - without sufficient capacity to do enough that is useful with them.

At Portland young offender institution in Dorset this year we found young men without sanitation in their cells emptying buckets the next morning into recesses that leaked into staff offices below. The prison is in the wrong place for the Londoners it holds and had only 70 training places for 500 young men. Yet it is being expanded, not relocated or properly resourced. That makes it less able to dent the 70% reoffending rate of its young adult inmates.

Three years ago a National Offender Management Service (NOMS) was set up to reduce reoffending through joined-up management of each offender, in and out of prison. This must be the right approach; but it was entirely predicated on a reduction in prison numbers. New structures and complex commissioning models are being created.

This seems like building an elaborate sand castle with your back to the rising tide. For much of what NOMS needs to do - reallocating resources to case management, supporting a demoralised and underresourced probation service, providing innovative solutions to long-standing problems - is falling victim to the demands of the ever expanding prison population.

Now there is a short but critical space to take stock. Creating more prison places is not the answer. Prisons can work - but only if they are shored up by preventive work in the community, alternatives for those they should not hold and, crucially, effective support for those they release, whose hopes for a different way of life too often collide with the reality of the world they return to. This is not just a challenge for the incoming Brown administration, or for the criminal justice system. It is a challenge for politicians of all parties and agencies - police, health, education, local authorities - prisons and probation officers cannot do this alone.

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