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Britain's prisons are at boiling point, with overcrowding, long periods of lockdown, and increasing violence putting staff and inmates at severe risk of harm and even fatality. Vic Dale looks at the crisis developing inside Her Majesty's Prison Service as a result of Tory cuts. The labour movement must fight back with united and militant action.

Britain's prisons are at boiling point, with overcrowding, long periods of lockdown, and increasing violence putting staff and inmates at severe risk of harm and even fatality. Vic Dale looks at the crisis developing inside Her Majesty's Prison Service as a result of Tory cuts. The labour movement must fight back with united and militant action.

I work in St Mary's hospital, sited across the road from Albany Prison, and our Emergency Department often has to treat the victims of prison violence. On one occasion we had two inmates brought in by a heavy guard, wearing thick oppressive manacles and chains. One patient had stab wounds all over his head and chest, inflicted by a sharpened steel spoon handle, and the other had had the end of his finger bitten right through. Neither patient was a pretty sight.

Such outbreaks are not uncommon. Figures for the numbers of serious assaults in prisons have more than doubled in the past few years. Meanwhile, the number of self-inflicted deaths and self-harm incidents are also at record highs for the last decade. As the Economist magazine reports:

“Conditions in prisons in England and Wales are grim and getting worse, according to the official inspectorate. The performance of a quarter is worrying, up from less than 2% in 2012, says the prison service. Buildings are crumbling, infested with rats and cockroaches. They have become unacceptably violent and dangerous, say inspectors. In the year to June 2015, 105 prisoners killed themselves, compared with 59 in 2010. More men and women are hurting themselves and they are doing so more frequently. Assaults, both on other prisoners and on staff, are soaring.”

Tension and frustration frequently build to the point where it erupts often over some minor matter, resulting in a situation where inmates, who live in the same cell, are ready to kill one another. Staff then have to find a way to come between the fractious elements, simply to prevent permanent mutilation or death. This often results in staff being injured and traumatised. The violence in Britain's prisons is disgraceful; deplorable in the extreme.

Cut to the bone

Prison inmates have no choice about where they are sent and many live in constant terror of what other inmates may do to them. Prison staff and inmates are being badly let down by a state and successive governments who simply do not seem to care who gets hurt, as long as the solution to the immediate problem is cheap.

This Tory government, and the Tory-Liberal Coalition before it, has cut funding for prisons to the absolute bone, leaving staff and inmates in constant danger. According to the Economist magazine, “Between 2010 and 2015 [the prison service] was forced to cut its budget by a quarter, making savings of £900m.” To give a concrete example, this means that the number of prison officers working on the frontline in key roles has been cut by more than 6,000 since the Tories came to power with their programme of austerity in 2010.

The size of the prison population, meanwhile, has swelled: from around 45,000 in England and Wales in 1991 to 85,000 two decades later – an increase of nearly 90%. The Prison Reform Trust has estimated that one quarter of prisoners are held in overcrowded conditions, with many prisons running at 140-170% of recommended capacity. As the BBC reported, “Even Liz Truss, who as justice secretary has overall responsibility for prisons, acknowledges that they're ‘not working’ and are under ‘serious and sustained pressure’.”

The government has finally responded by promising more money and staff, but this will take time to feed in: staff must first be trained and then bedded in on the job. Recruitment has become harder over the years due to a lack of safety and the poor reward offered in return for the danger staff face on a daily basis. An experienced prison officer is a valuable asset, requiring many years of training and development. Such assets have been completely disregarded by this hateful Tory government – yet further clear evidence of their unsuitability for office.

Owing to poor staffing levels and the consequent inability to securely monitor the behaviour of the prison population, inmates are getting hold of a range of drugs and illegal highs, valued in the hundreds of thousands of pounds – to say nothing of mobile phones with which to arrange their trade. Some drugs, including the so-called legal high "spice", can induce angry moods, which will increase adrenalin to the point where prisoners are extremely dangerous and difficult to control without causing injury to both the offender and staff wrestling with them.

Prison staff strike back

Toward the end of last year, prison staff were forced to take industrial action in order to bring the serious decline and acute crisis in Britain's prisons to public notice. The government's response was to threaten to criminalise those who went on strike. This week a ballot was taken for a Work to Rule, which would have meant the withdrawal of voluntary work, upon which the prisons generally rely. This action has today been ruled illegal by a court, backing staff into a corner.

How it is possible to rule that workers can no longer work according to the terms of their agreed contract? It just goes to show that agreements with employers, especially the capitalist state, are not worth the paper they are printed on.

It is uncertain what prison staff will do next. What is clear is that something has to be done. The current situation inside Britain’s prisons is untenable – and only getting worse. Greater numbers of staff will resign, and for every new member of newly trained staff who enters the prisons, two experienced members are likely to leave.

Should prison staff feel compelled to defy the courts and take industrial action, withdrawing voluntary work or even walking out, they must be given the backing of the TUC, of associated trade unions, and also of the wider working class.

In 1972, the then Heath (Tory) government began jailing strikers and pickets, in an attempt to keep working people down. The threat of a general strike caused the government to wheel in "The Official Solicitor", whom no one had ever seen before. Like a "knight in shining armour", he ruled that the government was out of order and that jailed trade unionists should immediately be released. This gave a huge morale boost to militant workers; many concessions that had in the past been denied, including the right to union membership in some workplaces, were now enshrined in law.

The Tories can be beaten. What is needed is united and militant action, and a leadership of the labour movement with a bold socialist programme.

  • For a one-day general strike to unite struggles amongst prison staff, healthcare workers, and railway trade unionists!
  • Kick out the Tories!
  • Labour to power on a socialist programme!