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Spiraling Prison Violence: Why it should bother you...

Security is the most essential human need, nowhere more so than in prisons. The news is awash with stories of prison violence, the wide extent of drug use and fear has become suddenly apparent to a nation that prides itself on its liberal tradition of treating people humanely and the rule of law. Looking at the current reports of the prison system, I am reminded of my tours of Afghanistan and the theories that drove Britain’s work their; ‘without security, nothing will flourish’. The same is true in prisons; unless prisons are safe rehabilitation is not possible. Whilst anyone might expect a concentration of people convicted of crime to be a more intimidating and a less forgiving environment, that is all the more reason why prison violence is so unacceptable. The risk of prisoners committing violent acts is no surprise, which is why it is so essential that the government equip prisons with the right people and resources to create safe environments. Over the past three years, prison violence has increased rapidly; serious assaults in prison have more than doubled in the last 3 years. There were 2197 serious prisoner on prisoner assaults and 625 serious assaults on staff in 2015 (Prison Reform Trust). You don’t have to dig too hard to understand the causes of prison violence. The rise in violence has mirrored the reduction in prison officer numbers, veteran officers have been replaced by twenty somethings on low pay and the proliferation of psychoactive substances seeks to deepen this crisis. Whilst prison officer numbers affect the likelihood of violent occurrences, the underlying causes of violence in prison remain behavioural; personal conflict is driven by frustration, poor self-discipline, low self-esteem and an inability to manage conflict. Men locked up for hours and hours lash out and are subsequently locked up for longer as punishment. It is a vicious circle and although I am not a psychologist, I am certain that the effects of surviving and living in such an environment are traumatic and long-lasting. Men are deepening the troubles that sent them to prison in the first place. There are other causes of prison violence of course; gangs & prison economies create turf wars, gangs fight for the control of smuggling/dealing/supply of contraband. I will discuss our encounters with gang networks in a later blog, but without the necessarily strong levels of security in prisons, it is impossible to counter gang proliferation and the supply of drugs. I am often confronted in conversation by people who advocate the ‘prisoners deserve all they get’ line of thinking. That solitary confinement for a period of several months is the best start to a sentence; that they should be broken. But these approaches are proven not to work. As a society, it is not in our interest to pursue such strategies because it just releases men back onto the streets who will commit more crime; currently 48% of prisoners reoffend within a year. The reality I find of men in prison is quite different to the media's portrayal of the 'evil criminal'. Not all, but many prisoners suffer from a raft a complex needs that society, our culture, their families, communities, schools and the state have failed to address. I find personality disorders untreated, cripplingly low self-esteem, unacceptable levels of illiteracy and men in the middle of their lives who have made quite serious mistakes, but with the best of intention, do not have the support or know how to fix things and move forward. The Justice Secretary has inherited one tremendous challenge, but creating a safe and secure environment is the starting point for all further progress. With safety, prisons can properly engage with prisoners. If we don’t, the cycle continues. 65% of the sons of prisoners will themselves go to prison.  What the statistics suggest is the urgency that we must engage before this cycle of violence and offending spins out of control. But perhaps most importantly for you the reader, if we don't address the violence blighting the prison system, released men are more likely to commit crime on release - this is a truth that should bother us all.

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