A prisoner has died and two others are said to be in a critical condition following a stabbing at HMP Pentonville on Tuesday afternoon. National media has reported that two prisoners, aged 34 and 26, have been arrested following the incident and police have launched a murder investigation.
As a result of this the Prison Governors Association has renewed calls for a public inquiry amid what it said was an “unprecedented” rise in prison violence and suicides across the prison service.
The association, which represents 1,021 governors across the UK, provided some eye opening figures which state that in the past 12 months there were 105 self-inflicted deaths across the prisons in the UK – almost double the number five years ago.
In addition serious assaults on staff have increased by 146% in the same period and self-harm incidents increased by more than 10,000.
This is not the first call for change within prisons. With the rise of suicide rates and violence amongst prisoner’s, pressure was put on the government in early 2016 to consider reform of the prison service. The then Justice secretary Michael Gove proposed a Prison Bill, proposing the biggest shake up since Victorian times by handing back more control to governors in managing their own prison establishments.
In September, however, Liz Truss, the new Justice Secretary under Theresa May pulled back from this plan of reform which was previously hailed as the centrepiece of David Cameron’s last Queens Speech only 5 months previous.
The Ministry of Justice have said despite this they are “totally committed” to prison reform but Ms Truss refused to confirm any reform, she has however promised an extra £14m to recruit more prison officers. It has to be considered though, will throwing more money at the prison service really prevent such sad instances as yesterday at Pentonville, or is real reform needed?
A spokesman for the Prison Governors Association at Pentonville said: “Our members, uniformed staff and prisoners are working and living in squalid and brutal conditions which should not be tolerated” with Peter Clarke, Chief inspector of prisons, also noting in his report that levels of violence at Pentonville were much higher than in similar prisons.
HMP Pentonville is a category B Victorian prison which opened in 1842. The Victorians built Pentonville to hold 900 prisoners, however today Pentonville holds more than 1,200 adults. According to a report by HM Inspectorate of the establishment Pentonville has a rapid turnover with more than 100 new prisoners a week and is “performing poorly” as a result of staff shortages, overcrowding and easy access to drugs.
It may be that money provided by the government would assist to provide more prison officers on the wing; however, this arguably does not go far enough to prevent violent incidents against these officers or the prisoners themselves when the regime itself may not be functional.
HMP Pentonville has continued to decline inspection after inspection without, it would seem any substantial intervention to prevent incidents. Inspections dating back as far as 2003 blame overcrowding for poor standards as well as many inmates left without basic provisions including clean clothes. An inspection report from 2007, and reiterated in a recent 2014 report, confirmed infestations of rats as well as below standard conditions for prisoners with mental health conditions. Providing more prison officers would maybe not go far in rectifying these particular issues.
The Prison Governors Association has increased pressure further to this incident for there to be a public inquiry. It is important to note that the purpose of requesting a public inquiry is not about apportioning blame on the prison service but understanding what has gone wrong and providing recommendations for improvement.
A public inquiry may actually prove beneficial in these circumstances because of the openness of the inquiry itself. An inquiry accepts evidence and conducts its hearings in a pubic forum allowing interested members of the public or organisations to make and listen to evidential submissions. The tools provided within the setting of a public inquiry would hopefully assist in seeking out understanding of what has contributed to the creation of the current prison environment and propose realistic points of reform.
It is normal procedure for advocacy groups and groups such as the Prison Governors Association to request public inquiries, however, the government will typically only grant a fraction of requests. In order for there to be a public inquiry the government will consider various aspects including the extent of media coverage, public benefit and inevitably the cost.
At the conclusion of a public inquiry a report is delivered generally making recommendations to improve the quality of, or management of, public organisations for the future.
It is with hope that the government will take action in some way to rectify problems of violence across the prison service to prevent future violence against both prisoners and staff.
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