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Justice and Fairness in Prisons · 26 Mar 2020

Justice does not stop at the prison gates: why fairer prisons mean a safer society

In normal times I would ask you to imagine what it is like to be in prison. But right now, in the middle of a global pandemic, we are all living in constrained conditions. For some of us, these constraints are more difficult or more restrictive than for others.

Imagine if you were unable to follow the government’s advice to help reduce the spread of coronavirus and protect yourself and others. Imagine having little or no access to hot water, towels or soap to wash your hands. Imagine having to live in close proximity to other people, all of them strangers, despite being asthmatic, or over 70 years old, or having another underlying health condition. Imagine being locked in a small, shared room for 23 hours a day without any contact with the outside world whatsoever – no internet, no phone, no shower, and not much food. For people in prison at a time of coronavirus, this is their daily reality.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a state of crisis in our communities and exacerbated the crisis that already existed in our prisons. The chair of the Justice Select Committee, Bob Neill, asked this week: ‘If prisons are not a petri-dish of infection, then what is?’. Prison conditions are often unhygienic and extremely overcrowded. The Secretary of State has said that there are 18,000 vulnerable people in prison who would be shielded if they were in the community. Already, over 10 per cent of prison staff are self-isolating. It is extremely likely that conditions will deteriorate further.

Measures must immediately be taken to relieve the pressure on the prison system and protect people in prison, prison officers and consequently the wider community – the Howard League has set out what those measures would look like here.

What longer term changes need to be made to make prisons safer, healthier and more humane places in the future? If we must have prisons, they should be places of justice. This is the starting point of The Howard League’s programme on justice and fairness in prisons. A fairer prison system would make an enormous difference not only to those who live and work in prisons, but to the communities that people return to when they leave prison – as almost all of them will. A just and fair prison system recognises people as citizens who are going to return to the community. A just prison is a place where people are given the opportunity to turn their lives around. Just and fair prisons would have a ripple effect and improve outcomes for our communities and our country.

Making prisons fairer would also make them safer

The everyday unfairness that is built into prison regimes exacerbates the rising levels of violence in our prisons. Cumbersome processes, inconsistent and arbitrary decisions, bureaucratic delays, ignored complaints, a punitive prison culture and unhealthy living conditions all contribute to this everyday unfairness. These unjust conditions fuel a cycle of conflict, as Her Majesty’s Prison Inspectorate frequently reports. People frustrated by the prison system’s inability to meet their basic needs resort to anger and aggression in order to try and get something done. Unsurprisingly, levels of violence in prisons in England and Wales are at a record high. In the year to March 2019, there were almost 100 assaults a day on other prisoners and prison officers.

The prison system has become increasingly punitive in its approach to managing conflict. In 2018, over a thousand years of additional imprisonment were imposed in prisons across England and Wales as a punishment for rule breaking. This is an alarming statistic, given how overcrowded our prison system is already. But as the number of punishments handed out increases, so do levels of violence in our prisons. Further punishment is not the solution.

What can be done about these ever-increasing levels of violence? Making prisons fairer would also make them safer. Academic studies that have looked at the effects of treating people in prison fairly have shown that when people feel fairly treated, they are less likely to behave violently and less likely to reoffend. Prison staff would benefit hugely from safer working conditions, as would wider society. A fairer prison system would lead to fewer victims of crime.

Solutions already exist. Fairer disciplinary processes, which the prison system and some pioneering prisons such as Buckley Hall are already beginning to engage with, needs to be embedded throughout the prison estate. Respecting the rights of people in prison, as championed by the Howard League in the children’s estate, has already helped to drive some change. Restorative approaches have been used successfully in some prisons such as Warren Hill to manage and deescalate conflict but need to be implemented far more systematically across the prison estate. Our first briefing as part of the justice and fairness programme, Justice does not stop at the prison gate, explores these solutions in greater detail.

At a time when many emergency temporary measures are being taken, it is crucial that the longer-term momentum towards building fairer, safer and healthier prison systems is not lost. A crisis situation, however terrible, also creates an opportunity to change things for the better. Justice does not stop at the prison gate; fairer prisons help us to build a safer society.

Dr Eleanor Careless

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