Prisons: The Elephant In The Room

From Prison UK: An Insider's View, former prisoner Alex Cavendish looks at the crisis in the UK prison system for long denied by "No Crisis Chris" Grayling.

It’s official. Our prisons are failing and deep in crisis. It must be true because even the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has now said so.

Of course, none of these revelations come as any great surprise to anyone who has worked in a prison, or been incarcerated in one, but it seems that sorting out the mess is now some sort of priority – at least on paper.
Don't mention the elephant...

Regular readers of this blog – which launched back in July 2014 – will be only too familiar with all the grim themes: chronic overcrowding, acute staff shortages, prisons awash with drugs of all kinds, as well as illicit mobile phones aplenty. Rising tensions and frustrations fuel violence against staff and fellow inmates and the statistics for suicide and self-harm are climbing. The cherry on top of this unappetising confection is rock-bottom staff morale, especially on the frontline where salaries start at just £19,000.

All of this was well known to politicians, civil servants, academics and prison reformers alike long before Michael Gove started to unpick the tangled web of denial and meaningless platitudes that characterised his predecessor Chris Grayling’s regime down at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) headquarters in London’s Petty France. Day by day, this grim, brutalist edifice came more to resemble George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth from Nineteen Eighty-Four as lies and half-truths were disseminated.

Newspeak dominated the MOJ’s public outpourings. Riots became ‘concerted indiscipline’ (although the smashed fixture and fittings on the wings remained the same), while prisoner suicides were dismissed as an inconvenient ‘blip’ by the master of callousness himself, Grayling, who also peddled the mendacious whopper that the prison system Was Not In Crisis, even though all the evidence suggested otherwise.

Crisis: What Crisis?

A key plank in the Grayling-era communications strategy was to deny everything – to the extent of trying to bully HM Inspectorate of Prisons into whitewashing its damning annual report – while rigidly excluding anyone from visiting our dysfunctional jails who could legally be denied access. Journalists, academic researchers, prison reform campaigners and even elected politicians found the gates firmly locked during the nightmare years.

As one Guardian journalist famously remarked (see here), it was easier to get into Vladimir Putin’s hellhole military prisons in Russia than it was to get permission from the MOJ to visit a jail in England and Wales. She also asked in her article on the subject, what was Chris Grayling trying to hide?

Since the media lockout of prisons was lifted by Mr Gove it has become painfully clear why Grayling and his minions were so determined to keep nosey hacks out. The latest feature to appear in The Guardian, written by Amelia Gentleman – appropriately the very journalist who made the infamous quip about visiting Russian jails – is devastating. It dissects in painful detail the sheer state of dereliction and demoralisation in HMP Wandsworth. From broken windows to shattered minds, her report (see here) exposes much of what Mr Grayling was so anxious to hide from the wider public.

However, it is also true that a two-day media visit can only allow for the mere scratching of the surface. While the prison’s dilapidated wings may be noisy enough during the daytime, it is the sheer horror of what happens at night when 1,200 men – many of them deeply disturbed, suicidal or very angry – are locked behind their doors with just seven staff on duty across the establishment.

HMP Wandsworth: a pit of despair

In recent months there have been repeated stories in the media about the prevalence of drugs – illegal and legal (herbal highs, steroids) in prisons. Although some establishments are worse than others, it is an acute problem that many inside the system, as well as prison inspectors and members of Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs), cite when trying to explain the significant increase in recorded incidents of violence.

Some point to the availability of drugs, especially the so-called ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ (NPS) such as Black Mamba and Spice, as fuelling a culture of debt and violence, that in turn is driving up the number of cases of self-harm and suicide. This is certainly the view of HM Inspectorate of Prisons as can be seen from inspection reports in recent years.

However, virtually none of the latest crop of media articles or broadcasts seems to be able, or willing, to get to grips with the inconvenient truth that corrupt staff (both uniformed and civilian, as well as approved contractors) are a significant source of the drugs entering the prison supply chain. Predictably, the latest Guardian expose of Wandsworth dwells on the use of drones, packages thrown over the wall and prisoners smuggling drugs and mobile phones or SIM cards ‘packed’ in body cavities, but makes absolutely no mention of bent prison staff getting in on what is a very lucrative commercial activity, whether by choice or because they have been compromised and are being blackmailed by prisoners or their associates back in the community.

BOSS chair, but is it working?

As staff shortages and budget cuts have eroded prison security, so those staff members who are corrupt (or are being blackmailed) have less chance of being caught red-handed bringing contraband in through the gate. As the Guardian article helpfully points out, none of the electronic security equipment in Reception at Wandsworth is actually working. In particular, the Body Orifice Security Scanner (BOSS) chair, which is supposed to detect illicit objects concealed inside bodies, has never worked. Even the walk-through metal detector isn’t currently switched on. With fewer security officers on duty, it’s not hard to see why trafficking contraband into our prisons has never been easier or less risky.

Earlier this month, the appropriately named Gary Copson – an ex-Metropolitan Police commander – wrote a piece for The Guardian about the prospects of prison reform being advocated by Messrs Cameron and Gove (see here). Although his views on this subject are of interest, what really caught my eye was the fact that his previous role was as an advisor to HMPS from 2001-2005. He should know what he is writing about.

Right down in the penultimate paragraph of Mr Copson’s article was the damning passage that should have had the rest of the national media scrambling for further interviews:

Drugs and mobile phones are illegal in prisons. Both are rife. Organised crime makes huge profits from supplying them into a hyper-inflated closed market. They get in principally through corruption. Prison officers are vulnerable to extreme intimidation and lack the support networks available to police when they are targeted by organised criminals.
POA: part of problem or solution?

He also observed that the powers that be were ‘afraid of discussing corruption’ with the Prisons Officers Association (POA), even though he himself had found the POA both ‘more enlightened and pragmatic’ about the issue. I found it genuinely amazing that comments of this kind, made by a former senior police officer with professional experience of prison security issues, have attracted so little attention, even in The Guardian.

Corruption among prison staff (and contractors with access) really does seem to be the elephant in the room that almost everyone is desperately trying to avoid mentioning. True, HMPS staff morale is already very low, but betrayal by bent colleagues who are cashing in by undermining security and safety in our prisons should be something that is of genuine concern to those officers and governors who aren’t corrupted. Remaining in denial of the problem merely serves to perpetuate a climate in which corruption can thrive unchallenged.

As Nick Hardwick, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, told me during a recent interview (see here), all too often corruption in secure establishments isn’t just a case of one rotten apple, but of what he described as ‘rotten orchards’. This involves small clusters of staff who are corrupt, but surrounded by larger groups of colleagues who are also compromised and therefore feel unable or unwilling to challenge unprofessional or illegal conduct.

SIM cards: tiny, but a big security risk

That criminal activities, including smuggling of drugs and mobile phones or SIM cards, do occur among a significant minority of those who work in the prison system is clear. Staff are regularly dismissed or suspended, while there are also periodic prosecutions. Penalties can be stiff because of the breach of trust involved, as one prison officer discovered back in 2009 when he was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in smuggling Class A drugs into HMP Channings Wood, Devon.

In January 2015, Mike Spurr, the chief of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) admitted to Channel 4 News that during 2014 alone, over 100 members of prison staff and authorised personnel had been dismissed or excluded from prisons, while 34 had been successfully prosecuted and convicted of criminal offences, primarily trafficking contraband such as drugs and mobile phones into establishments (see interview here). Of course, these are only the individuals who have been apprehended in the act and it seems reasonable to conclude that this is merely the tip of a much larger iceberg of corruption and misconduct.

Yet, despite the hard evidence, this remains a largely taboo subject. It is the elephant in the room that everyone seems to know is there, whilst making strenuous efforts to avoid mentioning. Now that even the politicians have started to acknowledge the reality of the crisis in our dysfunctional prisons, perhaps the key role being played by the ‘cons with keys’ should be the next issue that is tackled.

It only takes one bent staff member to endanger safety and lives in any establishment, but when there are clusters – ‘rotten orchards’ – of compromised colleagues who aid and abet the cover-ups, a corrupted environment can develop in which almost anything is possible, from smuggling contraband to falsifying official documents, and from sexual misbehaviour to vicious assaults on prisoners. I know from my own experience that there are many decent staff working in our prisons. Now is the time for them to start putting their own house in order by adopting a zero-tolerance approach to corruption by colleagues and prisoners.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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