Prisons: Locked in a Crazy System

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The rooftop protests at Wealstun and Maghaberry prisons in June - although relatively minor and isolated - are expressions of a deeper, more general malaise gripping Britain's jails.

The prison population is growing at such a rate that the system is struggling to cope. It is currently 7,000 over capacity. The scale of the crisis has provoked dire warnings from organisations as diverse as HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Prison Officers Association and the Prison Reform Trust.

The press reported that prisoners at Wealstun took to the roof after changes to the exercise routine and the arrival of inmates from Liverpool and Manchester. However, almost all sides now agree that, like at the high-security jail in Northern Ireland, overcrowding lay behind the disturbances. Even the conservative Prison Officers Association blamed the record numbers crammed into Britain's jails.

Alarmingly, these problems are repeated across the prison system. The Chief Inspector, Anne Owers, recently warned that many prisons are 'struggling on the edge of being able to provide a safe and decent regime'. Cells designed for one inmate are often occupied by two and sometimes three people. Prisoners are routinely denied association and recreation time due to staff shortages. Prisoners are regularly ferried around the country in search of available space. An internal Home Office report leaked to the Guardian reveals a prison system riddled with incompetence and violence. It shows that assaults, protests and suicides are rising sharply.

The government hopes that building more prisons and releasing more low-risk prisoners on the controversial electronic tag scheme will be enough to tackle the crisis. But penal reform charities remain sceptical. Frances Crook, director of the Howard League, told Socialist Review that the prison population is expanding so rapidly that even with additional space the system will still be under enormous pressure. She believes that the Home Office should end its reliance on prisons - except for the most dangerous offenders - and invest in alternatives to custody. Otherwise, Wealstun and Maghaberry may be only the first of many to revolt.