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The prison system of England and Wales is in deep crisis. These are not my words, but those of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture in a report from last year.
It is clear to see why they came to this conclusion – violence, substance abuse and overcrowding are rife within prisons. This is a systemic failure of successive governments, who have chipped away at the system until it is diminished to the point of collapse.
Prisons as they are today are not equipped to reduce reoffending in any meaningful fashion and are likely to produce more rather than fewer criminals. This amounts to a mockery of justice.
This crisis has been largely concealed from public view, contained and concealed within the four walls of the prison estate. But sometimes the best way to reach public consciousness is not through the words of politicians but through works of fiction.
Such work includes the BBC drama Time, which brought to light the degrading and violent reality of existence in prisons. Jimmy McGovern’s authentic mini-series, released earlier this year, captured audiences with its depiction of the extreme challenges facing people who live and work in a prison.
These challenges were expressed through the experiences of Time’s leading characters. We saw the perspective of staff through prison officer Eric McNally (Stephen Graham), who fell victim to the broken system as he contended with inmate violence, attempted suicides and blackmail from prison gangs. We followed the central characters’ grim individual paths to personal redemption unaided by the state whose proper role, of course, is rehabilitation and justice.
This portrayal of the dangers facing staff is very true to real life. Take Wales, for example, where prisoner violence and assaults on prison staff in HMP Berwyn increased by 143 per cent and 25 per cent respectively in 2020.
Even more recently, there was a shocking near-fatal attack on a prison officer at HMP Swansea that has prompted calls for an enquiry.
It is not only prison officers who are at risk but wider prison staff, which is why I tabled the “Protect All Prison Staff” amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Other staff working in the prison estate, people such as educators and probation officers, deserve being granted equal protection as officers. It was deeply disappointing therefore to see the Government reject this amendment, but I hope it will be picked up by Peers as the Bill moves to the House of Lords.
The drama’s gripping finale made for painful viewing. Sadly, it chimed with my experience in the Prison Service Parliamentary Scheme, which I helped establish to give MPs genuine first-hand knowledge of the challenges experienced by prison officers.
Work such as Time deserves proper recognition – and I was proud to table an Early Day Motion in Parliament praising the creators, cast and crew of the BBC One drama for shining a much-needed spotlight on the reality experienced by prison staff and prisoners.
Art and drama can be a powerful medium through which to garner public interest and understanding of the situation in prisons and can help demonstrate that, unlike redemption, rehabilitation is impossible within violent and squalid prisons.
The shifting public opinion driven by work such as Time has given us a chance to pressure ministers and policy-makers to act to minimise violence and other harm against prisoners and prison staff. This includes addressing problems relating to salary, working conditions and pensions for staff, which have knock-on effects for recruitment and retention, which further worsens staff capacity to manage prisons safely.
The current crisis is borne out of political choices. We can make different choices and fix the broken system. This starts with taking care of prison officers and staff – and will result in contributing towards ending the deep crisis of justice in our prisons.
Liz Saville Roberts is the Plaid Cymru MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd. Please ask your MP to support EDM 229: The BBC One drama Time
Representing over 30,000 Prison, Correctional and Secure Psychiatric Workers, the POA is the largest UK Union in this sector, able to trace its roots back more than 100 years.