It’s a Friday morning, 2am. I’m sitting in a fairly comfy mini-armchair, in a room about 15’ square, with just about enough of a glow from the rolling BBC News and the lights in the yard to write with some hope of legibility. There are two other chairs like this one, set around a functional coffee table that sits on an understated Ikea rug. The other chairs are empty, and I can hear soft snoring coming from the bunk beds against the far wall. A blackbird is twittering insistently outside, and the smell of rain drifts in with the cool air coming through the window vents.
This place is known as the Care Suite, and we use it when someone is at a point of crisis, and needs Listeners to be available through the night. There are always two Listeners on the rota, and my opposite number is on the top bunk getting some rest (one of us must be awake at all times). The man on the bottom bunk has just returned from a four-day stay in hospital after taking a serious overdose.
I’ve seen quite a few people in this prison after, and sometime during an overdose, and it’s often more of a cry for help than a desire to actually end their life. I’ll always ask what they’ve taken, to assess what might happen. Thankfully, most of the time it’s clear that it’s unlikely to kill them, but nonetheless they usually end up in an ambulance by their own volition. We have a policy of self-determination that’s in line with that of the Samaritans, meaning if someone chooses to take their own life, we will not stop them by notifying anyone. Certainly, we will offer all the support they may want, exploring the emotions around their intentions, but we will not try to talk them out of it. This gives prisoners the freedom to approach a Listener without fear of interference. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this is the best way to minimise the chances of someone actually going through with it.
There is a caveat to the policy, but we will always make this clear to someone who presents claiming to have overdosed. If someone starts to show signs of unusual drowsiness or slurred speech, then we must call for help, lest we be accused of encouraging or assisting a suicide. If, however, a person leaves before any such symptoms are seen, then the decision is up to them. I’m grateful I’ve not yet been put in that position, though I know others who have.
The man with us tonight did not call for anyone when he took nearly a hundred sedative pills, and was found only on a routine staff check. He has little memory of what happened. These are the ones we have most concern about; when someone is talking about suicide, that’s a good thing, as those most liable to make a significant attempt are those who have not reached out for support. We have been lucky here in that for many years nobody has succeeded in taking their own life. I like to believe that this is at least in part due to our 25-strong Listener team: we try to be proactive, and in theory there are enough of us to keep at least half an eye on everyone. But there is a growing crisis of mental health in the UK prison population as a whole.
Last year there were 113 suicides in UK prisons, and there were around 40,000 recorded incidents of self-harm. Currently, these numbers are increasing appreciably year-on-year, and have been on the rise since the tenure of Chris Grayling as Justice Secretary began back in 2013. We can’t put all the blame onto one man, as the problems continue to worsen. But Mr Grayling oversaw a number of changes that marked the start of the decline. Responding to the usual outraged and exaggerated rantings of the gutter press, he decided he was going to look tough on criminals by taking control of the minutiae of prisoners’ lives.
“Prison is too soft!” they cried, and so he decreed that nobody shall be allowed a choice of more than nine television channels. “Prisoners are watching violent films!” they shouted, and so he declared that nobody shall be allowed to watch anything with an 18-rating (unless of course it happens to be shown on one of those nine TV channels). “Prisoners have far too much sheet music!” they almost certainly didn’t exclaim, but nonetheless he commanded that no prisoner shall be in possession of more than twelve printed sheets of music. And he also banned friends and family from sending prisoners books – presumably because of their subversive and corrupting influence. Thankfully this last one was overturned after much wrangling, and the intervention of various celebrities.
All of these trivialities, however frustrating, will in all probability have had only limited effect on rates of suicide and self-harm. Far more damaging is the ongoing reduction in prison budgets, and the consequent decrease in staff numbers and the overall morale of those who remain.
Some prisons are now so short-staffed that people are routinely left confined to their cramped and under-ventilated cells/toilet-rooms-with-beds for 23 hours a day. Purposeful activities such as education, work, or visits to the library are becoming rare luxuries, and rehabilitation – to paraphrase Red in The Shawshank Redemption – is just a “made-up bullshit word”. This is human warehousing on a grand scale.
“Too right!”, shouts the indignant Daily Mail reader, “Why should they be put up in luxury at my expense? They broke the law, and now they should suffer!”. Yes, we have broken the law, but our punishment is meant solely to be the deprivation of our liberty, and not the experience of prison itself. Nobody would argue for five-star accommodation, but I like to believe that few would argue for conditions that lead directly or indirectly to prisoners feeling their best option is to head for the existential fire exit. There must surely be a middle ground, where standards of safety and decency are maintained.
When staff numbers drop, prisoner welfare suffers. Violence, drugs and bullying are able to proliferate, and along with the difficulties these things create in and of themselves, problems with mental health become endemic. The few overworked staff members that remain are unable to get to know those in their care, and can’t keep a personal eye on their welfare, so problems are often missed until it’s too late. This is not how any section of society should be treated, whatever crimes they may have committed.
Perhaps I sound like a bleeding heart liberal – a left-wing idealist – and naturally I’m at least a little self-interested. But I’m one of the lucky ones. This prison has had its share of cutbacks, but has so far managed to maintain what passes for a normal regime. Most people are in purposeful activity, and general lockdowns are rare. Even here though, cancellations of things such as gym and library sessions due to short staffing are becoming more common. Fortunately, a culture of rehabilitation persists, and is even seeming to grow now that the Decency Committee has morphed and expanded to become the Rehabilitative Culture Committee. Contrary to popular whinging, progress is being made. And it could be like this in every prison.
Let’s suppose for a moment that you don’t share my liberal leanings; perhaps you’re a dyed-in-the-wool right-wing free-market capitalist who abhors the concept of basic human rights for prisoners. Let me make for you then a purely economic argument.
A prisoner who is warehoused, maltreated, and given no opportunity to better himself will go out into the world angry and resentful, and perhaps feeling that society has done him an injustice. Far from changing his ways, he will most likely have learned new criminal skills and formed new networks that will enable to him to return to a life of crime – which will be the only life he can realistically picture for himself – with, if anything, a renewed vigour. His criminal lifestyle will produce no tax income for the government, and will in fact cost the economy money – either directly through acquisitive crime, or indirectly via increased insurance premiums or the difficult-to-calculate costs of lost productivity of his victims and/or the diminished quality of life in the areas where his crimes are committed. Eventually, his inevitable return to custody will once again be a direct cost to the taxpayer. Currently, around half of the general prison population will go on to be reconvicted once released.
The alternative is not a vote-winner, but would unquestionably be dramatically cheaper in the long term. If prisons were properly funded – and this would mean a considerable increase in prison budgets – then the decline in prison living standards could be reversed. Warehousing would turn to purposeful activity. Education departments would be able to give everyone the opportunity to learn new skills to allow them to go out into lawful, gainful employment. The culture of rehabilitation they had experienced would make them more prepared to re-integrate into mainstream society, and not come back to prison and be a further burden on the state. Even if only half of prisoners ended up following this path, money would be saved. Lots of money. And as a bonus, probably far fewer people would end up killing themselves.
Whatever your political inclination, cutting prison budgets and trying to make prison life ‘tougher’ makes no human or economic sense whatsoever. In my job as an Education Mentor over the last few months, I’ve had the privilege of seeing a seed of change and optimism planted in several formerly habitual criminals. Something as simple as learning to read and write coherently can make a surprising difference to a person’s outlook on life. Perhaps it’s time we took control of the criminal justice system out of the hands of vote-seekers who must pander to short-sighted tabloid opinion. Otherwise the blood on those hands may become too much for anyone to ignore.