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‘I will quit if I haven’t succeeded in 12 months’ HMP Birmingham, Rory Stewart and the prison crisis

The Ministry of Justice recently seized control of HMP Birmingham from G4S after a surprise inspection found that those inside ‘used drink, drugs and violence with impunity and corridors were littered with cockroaches, blood and vomit.’ (The Guardian). These are shocking findings but unfortunately there have been countless reports stating the horrific conditions of many prisons around the country.

National Prison Radio recently produced a radio programme entitled ‘The Art of Now – The Architecture of Incarceration’ hosted by Danna Walker. It noted that many Victorian-style prisons create a stressful environment due to the cold walls and brittle sound. As a result of this stress inducing environment, those living inside get agitated and uncomfortable and it acts as one of the contributing factors to disasters such as the one at HMP Birmingham. This environment is the opposite of what many of those in prison need in order to rehabilitate and prepare for a crime-free life outside. Often drugs are used as a way of coping with the inhumane conditions they are living in, and violence is often a result of the tensions that manifest in prison walls.

Rory Stewart announced his ’10 Prisons Project’ which is a 10 million pound investment into 10 problematic prisons in the UK. The majority of the budget (£6 million) is going towards security to stop drugs and phones entering prisons. A smaller amount (£3 million) is going towards improving the safety and decency of the prisons which includes fixing infrastructure and improving cleanliness. The final £1 million is going towards leadership and giving military-style training to governors. As said on Russel Webster’s website; ‘Many question whether real change can be achieved without a concentrated effort to promote a more rehabilitative culture.’ As much as it is important to reduce drugs and improve safety and cleanliness within prisons, this does not necessarily mean that prisons will be successful. There needs to be a focus on the root causes of why those in prison are so desperate to take drugs, and once this is identified there needs to be a discussion on how to eliminate it.

Rory Stewart claimed that he would resign if the scheme did not reduce drugs and violence within a year. Some would argue that it is positive he is showing accountability, but is that really the right approach? If prisons and the criminal justice system are really going to change for the better, we need a long-term commitment to this change. If Stewart’s scheme does not reduce drugs and violence as much as he is hoping, then that doesn’t mean he should give up. Failure is important in helping to identify what the correct solution actually is.

Perhaps we could take inspiration from other countries which have more successful prison systems. Norway has much lower levels of drug use as well as low re-offending rates. Prisons in Norway are run with rehabilitation at the heart, rather than the tough and punishing experience people face here. To escape the crisis the prison system is currently in will most likely be a long and slow process; what we need is someone who is committed to a fairer and more sustainable system.

Written by Olivia Penn.


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