16 May 2017
In January of 2014 I started work on a novel, Fellside, set in a colossal women’s prison on the Yorkshire moors. An imaginary setting, but loosely inspired by the Conservative government’s plans (inherited from New Labour) to build a new generation of so-called “titan” prisons to house Britain’s rapidly increasing prison population.
I would be lying if I said my initial research was meticulous. Actually, I would be lying if I said that it went much beyond Googling some articles and images, reading a few prison memoirs and binge-watching old episodes of Bad Girls.
If this sounds cavalier, it was because I saw Fellside initially as being much more about addiction than it was about incarceration. The protagonist is a drug addict who accidentally takes a child’s life while in the grip of her addiction, and then, while in prison, strikes up a relationship with the child’s ghost – or at least believes this to be the case. I was most interested in her psychology and her emotional journey. I was much less focused on the institution except insofar as it prevented any escape from the unfolding situation.
But a lot of things happened as I wrote. I did more reading. I pitched Fellside as a movie and started to do primary research, first of all talking to people who were doing drug rehab work in prisons and then visiting prisons and interviewing their inmates (and in some cases ex-inmates).
I was particularly keen to see the inside of Holloway Prison before it closed, an event which was scheduled for some time in the first half of 2016. My producer, Camille, made approaches through two women in the drug rehab unit who had been talking to us about their work and giving us feedback on early drafts of the screenplay.
But the visit didn’t happen – or at least, not then. On the day when I was scheduled to go in, inmate Sarah Reed committed suicide in her cell. The prison went into lockdown for the day, as is common in such cases.
The name Sarah Reed may already have strong associations for you. If it doesn’t, you’ll probably remember her when I say that she came into the full glare of the media spotlight in 2012 when, having been arrested for shoplifting, she was filmed being horrifically assaulted by the arresting officer. He dragged her off a chair by her hair and punched her repeatedly in the face, an unprovoked attack for which he later lost his job but escaped a jail sentence.
Sarah Reed wasn’t so lucky. She had suffered from severe mental health problems since the death of her child some years earlier, but that didn’t prevent the authorities from removing her from the Maudsley Hospital to Holloway, where she subsequently died. She had been charged with assaulting a fellow inmate there, although witnesses said he attacked her and sustained his injuries when she defended herself. Denied bail, she went into the remand wing at Holloway. And never came out again.
Grazing the edge of such a senseless tragedy shook me. It seemed inexplicable to me that Reed was in the prison estate at all, and inexcusable that she had received such slipshod oversight that she had ended up dead.
The focus of the project shifted by gradual degrees. I was still writing a ghost story, first and foremost, but more and more it seemed important to paint a portrait of life inside that got at least some of the details right. Because clearly when you’re touching on a subject that impacts on the lives of real people, the details matter a great deal.
Other prison visits followed, to newer institutions such as Thameside and High Down. In both of those prisons I met hard-working and dedicated staff doing a tough job to the best of their ability. But I also got a sense of the problems they’re facing, exacerbated by rigid and poorly framed sentencing guidelines and endemic underfunding.
The British prison system is in crisis, and it’s not because of a rising tide of serious crime. It’s because of decisions made at every level of government about the management of the justice system and of the prison estate. The Fellside I originally envisaged, a brooding Victorian pile, doesn’t really exist any more. What is gradually replacing it is very different, but not necessarily better.
A few numbers up front. The numbers are only a tiny part of this, but it’s still worth being aware of what they are. The current prison population in the UK stands at around 85,000. To provide some context, that total has more or less doubled in the past twenty years. The number of people locked up in jail expressed as a percentage of the total population is creeping inexorably up and up.
Obviously we’ve still got a long way to go before we reach the giddy heights of, say, the US system. America has about one per cent of its adults locked up at any given time, and with less than 5% of the world’s population holds a quarter of the world’s prisoners.
But if you take America out of the equation the UK stands alone as the Western nation with the highest per capita rate of incarceration and the steepest increases in the post-war era. And if we focus on the last twenty years, the period in which our prison population had doubled, that has happened against a backdrop of a marked decrease in serious crimes.
Which brings us back to government policy. When Tony Blair pledged back in 1993 that an incoming Labour government would be “tough on crime and tough on the underlying causes of crime” he was playing his favourite game of tacking to the right to avoid being outflanked – claiming some of the traditional territory of the "hang ’em and flog ’em" brigade for his shiny, new Third Way. But he meant it too. Average sentences rose during his tenure at Number 10 and they continued to rise under his successors. So did the percentage of non-violent offenders who were awarded custodial sentences. Full statistical breakdowns are available from the Howard League or from the Prison Reform Trust, so I won’t start dropping in graphs and charts.
In any case, it’s only a small part of the total picture, which also includes the privatisation of prisons. A lot of these new prisoners are no longer directly under the aegis of the Justice Department. More and more, like America, we’re contracting out the business of incarceration to private providers like G4S, Serco and Sodexo. Turning prisons into a business, subjecting them to the ruthless logic of profit and loss, is a disastrous mistake. Once prisoners start to be seen in terms of units of profit, terrible things happen.
Staffing ratios slide, because wages are the highest cost in any organisation.
Fewer staff mean longer periods locked in cells. A private prison might have a state of the art library or print shop that stands empty half the time because the staff who would be needed to supervise it just aren’t there.
And longer periods locked in cells mean a higher suicide rate, endemic drug abuse and massively increased mental health problems. Prisoner-on-prisoner assaults and prisoner-on-staff assaults also climb inexorably as morale crumbles and tensions increase.
Profit enters this story in another way too. The Justice Department has realised stupendous one-off profits by selling off the Victorian prisons in the property hotspots of the South East and replacing them with new structures. Much of the new build – because of private equity involvement – doesn’t even appear on the balance sheet, and for the most part it’s located in remote areas where land values are lower. The downside of that only hits inmates and their families, as visits come increasingly to be major expenses and logistical nightmares, impossible to undertake on a regular basis.
I finally did get into Holloway, about a month after it closed and its inmates were relocated. I wandered through the eerie, empty corridors, through doors whose lock-plates had been removed so that nobody could inadvertently lock themselves in a remote room and get into difficulties.
Many details stood out for me on that visit. The mother and baby unit with its little garden up on the roof of the prison. The lights in the cells, draped with J-cloths to make their harsh glare a little cosier. The iron bedframes scorched and blackened where they’d been heated up to turn them into ad hoc grills for making toast.
More than anything, though, I was struck by something I saw in the art and craft area. Holloway had won awards for this unit, which was airy and well stocked and full of inmates’ art proudly displayed. It wasn’t clear what was going to happen to this work now that its creators had been dispersed through the system.
One room that I entered was full of paintings and sketches. The same subject, again and again: two boys, one a fraction taller than the other, holding hands. rag and paper dolls hung down from the ceiling: again, in twos, always holding hands. On the window ledge, hand-fired clay tiles bore the same two figures. Our guide, who had worked in the unit, told us that the woman who made all these things had lost custody of her children after she was sentenced to prison. Again, this was a woman with mental health issues that in other circumstances might have argued against a custodial sentence. She hadn’t seen her two sons for years, but every day she made them with her hands – as a prayer, maybe, or a bit of sympathetic magic to bring them closer, or just as a way of making sure she didn’t forget.
Former Home Secretary Michael Howard coined the self-serving mantra “prison works”, and that message has been repeated in one form or another by most of his successors. It doesn’t, of course. No system that boasts a 60% reoffending rate can be said to be working. Prison is just a last resort that you use when nothing else works. Or at least, that’s what it ought to be. Increasingly it’s an extension of the perverse logics of capitalism into yet another area of state provision and the final, catastrophic catch-all for the people who the state has failed. That’s why those numbers are going up, and will continue to go up.
- Mike Carey