The Observer view on Britain’s brutal and overcrowded prisons posing a risk to us all

Britain’s public service infrastructure has been radically transformed over the past couple of centuries. But, as noted by former prime minister John Major earlier this year, one standout exception is the prison system.

Many prisons were built in the Victorian era, when they were designed to house a single prisoner per cell. In today’s dangerously overcrowded estate, their cells often house two, or sometimes even three, prisoners, plus a toilet. The new analysis of inspection reports shows prison conditions continue to get worse. As Major argues: “To have inmates held in worse conditions than in Victorian times is an indictment of policy that is hard to ignore.”

But ignored it has been, as the crisis in Britain’s prisons steadily builds. Major’s position represents a welcome shift from his earlier stance: it was during his premiership, in 1993, that his home secretary Michael Howard famously declared, “prison works”. Howard triggered a shift in sentencing policy that has since been embraced by both main parties, leading to an 80% increase in prison numbers over the past three decades, leaving the UK with the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe. The political class is all too eager to appear tough on sentencing rather than correcting public misperceptions; more than half the public believes the average prison sentence is shorter than it was 25 years ago, when, in reality, it is much longer.

The prison estate has become a pressure cooker since 2010 as a result of a failure to build enough prison places to keep pace with longer sentencing, dwindling funding and a prison service staffed by increasingly inexperienced officers with understandably low morale. The prisons and probation service budget remains more than a tenth lower than it was in 2010, and there are 10% fewer staff than there were in 2010, and with more than a third of prison officers having been in post for less than three years.

Prisoners are therefore serving their sentences in overcrowded, filthy and dangerous conditions. Figures out last month show that in the past year the number of deaths on the prison estate has increased by 9%, and the number of suicides by 26%. Self-harm in the women’s prison estate is up 52% compared with the year before. The chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales has repeatedly expressed concerns that prisoners are still being kept on Covid-style restricted regimes, with some allowed out of their cells for only two hours a day on weekdays.

Our analysis highlights that an extraordinary three-quarters of prisons have a poor or inadequate rating from the prison inspectorate in at least one of four categories. There are too many people with mental health and addiction issues serving sentences of under a year for minor crimes that are less effective at reducing reoffending than community sentencing. Nowhere is this more true than in the female prison estate, where many women are vulnerable victims of abuse locked up for nonviolent crimes.

These conditions mean prison is not achieving any of its functions: to punish fairly, to keep the community safe, or to rehabilitate people so they can safely rejoin the outside world. Locking up people in conditions that put their lives at risk is never an appropriate punishment, and the failure to use prison to rehabilitate people undermines its role in improving long-term community safety. Prisons urgently need more investment, but a significant shift in prison conditions will not be achieved until we have politicians who once and for all acknowledge that too many people are serving short sentences for nonviolent and minor crimes.

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