June 24, 2022 Wayne Northey

Response To: ‘If you decide to cut staff, people die’: how Nottingham prison descended into chaos

As violence, drug use and suicide at HMP Nottingham reached shocking new levels, the prison became a symbol of a system crumbling into crisis

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June 21, 2022

image above: Ben Jones/The Guardian

WN: This is a worldwide story repeated since the birth of the modern prison in 1790, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There are exceptions in Scandinavian countries, in Iceland, but they only prove the rule.

Prisons must be abolished!

Please see much more on this website, on this webpage, and scattered throughout BLOG entries, often connected to other issues, such as war and peace, the death penalty, etc.

My dear friend Gerry Ayotte, former head of Chaplaincy, Correctional Services Canada, Pacific Region–wrote this in introducing me to this article:

This article touched my longstanding wish that Christians who appropriate the name “pro-life” were as committed to speaking out against atrocities such as this.

I add a hearty Amen! Please also see the post before this:

excerpts:

At the start of 2018, Nottingham had become the first prison in Britain to be issued with an urgent notification, a new form of special measures reserved for the most dangerous institutions. “Inspection findings at HMP Nottingham tell a story of dramatic decline since 2010,” wrote Peter Clarke, then chief inspector of prisons. The report that accompanied the urgent notification – which followed poor inspection reports win 2015 and 2016 – described Nottingham as “a dangerous, disrespectful, drug-ridden jail” and raised a litany of concerns. Staff were being assaulted at twice the rate of their counterparts in other prisons. Prisoners were increasingly turning to self-harm. Eight men had taken their own lives since the last inspection.

How did Nottingham get so bad? Over the past year, I have interviewed more than 60 people – prisoners, prison staff, lawyers, academics, officials and families – to piece together how the prison unravelled. (The Ministry of Justice did not grant me permission to visit HMP Nottingham and rejected multiple requests to interview former governors and the prison chaplaincy team.) These interviews, alongside documents, inspection reports and inquest recordings, paint a vivid picture of Nottingham’s disintegration – at one inquest, an officer likened the prison to a war zone.

But the story of Nottingham is not one of individual crisis; it is a particularly shocking symbol of a nationwide crisis. Between 2009 and 2019, deaths in custody in English and Welsh prisons increased by 86%, while serious assaults on staff increased by 228%. “This decline was due to policy and political decisions, not suddenly a whole load of prison staff and prison governors decided they were going to down tools and do a bad job,” Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons from 2010 to 2016, told me. “It’s really important to understand that in prisons – as in other public services – this is a systemic issue.”

But the story of Nottingham is not one of individual crisis; it is a particularly shocking symbol of a nationwide crisis. Between 2009 and 2019, deaths in custody in English and Welsh prisons increased by 86%, while serious assaults on staff increased by 228%. “This decline was due to policy and political decisions, not suddenly a whole load of prison staff and prison governors decided they were going to down tools and do a bad job,” Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons from 2010 to 2016, told me. “It’s really important to understand that in prisons – as in other public services – this is a systemic issue.”

It wasn’t always this way. In the mid-90s, the prison population stood at roughly 40,000. But over the next few years, as Labour and the Conservatives competed to be seen as tough on crime, these numbers climbed steeply. Under New Labour, the prison population – which is disproportionately composed of men, minorities and people living with addiction and mental illness – reached 80,000 for the first time. In 2003, Martin Narey, director of the Prison Service, resigned in protest. “We could be turning people’s lives around,” he later said. “As long as numbers are continually rising, that’s not going to be possible.”

During its time in office, the coalition government would cut prison budgets by 20%, and the number of prison staff would fall by almost 30%. “[Grayling] delivered on what David Cameron had asked him to do. But it’s at a considerable cost,” Wheatley told me. “Prisoners and staff are still paying.”

Around the time McKenzie returned to Nottingham, the justice select committee finished a year-long inquiry into the effects of “efficiency savings” in prisons, which made the link between funding cuts and a rise in prison deaths. In 2016, there were 119 suicides in English and Welsh prisons – twice as many as in 2012. The following year, self-harm incidents reached record numbers. That year, Frances Crook, then head of the Howard League for Prison Reform, gave evidence to parliament. “If you decide to cut staff, there are consequences; people die as a consequence,” she said. “Those are decisions that are made by politicians.”

In November 2016, in an effort to control the chaos its policies had unleashed, the government announced a recruitment drive to hire 2,500 officers. Having been stripped of experienced officers, prisons were now being filled with new recruits who were given as little as eight weeks training. (In Norway, officers are trained for two years.) At Nottingham, new officers were being sent into a particularly violent environment. A report published in February 2016 recorded 299 assaults on staff and prisoners in the previous six months, many of which involved weapons. One man who worked at Nottingham during this period recalled seeing a female member of staff being held down by her ponytail and kicked in the face. “If you have a jail that is at breaking point, don’t send inexperienced officers into that jail,” said former Nottingham prisoner Andrew Sedgwick.

There hasn’t been much research into the impacts of officering – prison officers sometimes refer to themselves as the forgotten service – but we do know that they suffer high levels of alcoholism, divorce and stress. Figures obtained by the BBC show that, in 2019, 1,000 prison officers in England and Wales were signed off due to stress. “My biggest regret in my life is going to work in the Prison Service,” says Mark, describing the toll taken by decades in the job. “It lives with you. I don’t know how many dead bodies I’ve seen in prison.”

Nottingham’s staff faced violence, but some abused their power. In April 2016, an officer assaulted a Black prisoner in his cell. In a WhatsApp group, the officer and two colleagues shared racist messages and agreed to lie to the prison investigation. One officer was later found guilty of common assault and all three were sentenced for misconduct in a public office. Eight months later, it emerged that another group of Nottingham staff had deliberately antagonised Black and Asian prisoners until they needed to be restrained, placed bets on who would win fights between officers and prisoners, and logged scores in a WhatsApp group.

These examples are extreme, but they reflect the evidence that those from ethnic minority backgrounds are both overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and have a worse time inside prison. It is unclear if any progress has been made since the 2017 Lammy Review into the justice system’s treatment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals, which made 35 recommendations for reform. Earlier this year, in a new survey of BAME women prisoners, 40% of respondents had experienced discrimination, including racist abuse and prejudice from prison staff.

It was at this point that Nottingham was issued its urgent notification, and the prison’s failings became national news. Yet some argue that by focusing attention on individual failing prisons, urgent notifications can distract from just how widespread the rot has become. Nick Hardwick, the former prison inspector, told me that around 2013, the inspectorate had discussed whether they ought to actually lower standards because it was becoming impossible for prisons to meet them. They decided against this, because doing so would make it look as though everything was fine. “And it wasn’t.”

The systemic reasons for Nottingham’s decline are clear. But what role did the most senior individuals at the prison play in Nottingham’s continual decline? Mark, the former officer, certainly felt unsupported. “Senior management are like rocking horse droppings. You never see them,” he said. Phil Wheatley agrees that governors in prisons nationwide are more remote than they once were. But, he said, after benchmarking, “Governors were left with an impossible job and very often got blamed when it went wrong.”

Two years on, prisoners in England and Wales are still living with some of the restrictions that were implemented at the beginning of the pandemic; restrictions that saw many prisoners across the country confined to their cells for more than 22 hours a day. Once prisoners were locked down, rates of violence dropped. Now some staff are pushing to maintain the restricted regime indefinitely. “We have learned from Covid that lockdown is not a bad thing. It has returned control to the prison staff,” Mark Fairhurst, the chair of the prison officers’ union told the Times in July 2020. “Believe it or not, prisoners are telling us they like this regime. It is stable, they are not getting bullied by other prisoners.” Of course, if this is true, it raises deeper questions about why prisoners feel safer being locked inside their cells than engaging in some of the limited freedoms – education, work, exercise, visits – that should support their mental health and rehabilitation.

Please click on: Nottingham Prison–A Symbol of a System Crumbling Into Crisis

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