Drugs, violence, suicide: jail chaos exposed

Do you really want to hurt me? Boy George on community service (left); a tough American prison.

A BBC programme has highlighted the shocking situation in prisons in England and Wales. As scandals mount and guards fear enforcing the rules, should jails be abolished — or made tougher?

Prisoners using drugs with impunity. An inmate being stamped on. Staff being threatened.

In an episode of the BBC’s Panorama last night, an investigative reporter went undercover at HMP Northumberland — and laid bare the reality in prisons in England and Wales.

Security was lacking. Officers found balaclavas, blackout clothing and wire-cutting tools, suggesting prisoners were sneaking out at night to collect drugs or other contraband.

There was sporadic violence. ‘Sooner or later, someone is going to get killed’ warned a prisoner. An officer said she could not react because she lacked backup: ‘I don’t feel safe, ever’.

Drugs were rife. On the reporter’s first day officers found 2.5 kilos of spice. In one incident a guard accidentally inhaled the legal high — and had convulsions under a table.

‘Prisoners and staff say it’s not guards that run the jail,’ the reporter concluded. ‘It’s the prisoners themselves.’

A series of scandals have hit English and Welsh prisons in recent months. The suicide rate is higher than ever. Levels of violence have risen. There have been riots and disturbances at four prisons. Some have warned of guards retreating to the ends of their wings. Investigations have shown inmates’ illicit use of phones and drones.

There are widespread complaints about overcrowding: the prison population is at a record high while staff numbers have fallen. In November prison officers went on strike to protest against ‘chronic staff shortages and impoverished regimes’. Some jails have been controversially privatised.

Yesterday Liz Truss, the justice secretary, said it would be ‘reckless’ to cut prison numbers or seek a ‘dangerous quick-fix’ solution under political pressure. But some are asking a more fundamental question: can prison work?

Locked up

Abolish it entirely, says The Week columnist Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. Prisons are unnaturally controlling. Bringing offenders together hardens them and encourages gangs, violence and even rape. These horrors are easily ignored when the public shuts its criminals away. Petty criminals could do community service and repair the damage they cause; serious offenders could have their liberty restricted more effectively in the outside world.

Prisons are not the problem, says Mail on Sunday writer Peter Hitchens — it is the liberal approach. Officials are under pressure to cut prisoner numbers, so fail to give early offenders the short, sharp shock they need. Criminals are given too many second chances, so never learn to respect authority. The state should make prison more punishing and empower officers to enforce its decisions. The alternatives allow the worst criminals to do what they want — behind bars or not.

You Decide

  1. Does the situation in Britain’s prisons worry you?
  2. Should prison be abolished, or made more punitive, or neither?


  1. Work in pairs. You are investigative journalists trying to find out what life is like in a prison near you. Write five questions you would want to answer, and explain how you would find out the answers.
  2. Write a one-page fact file about the prison system in your country, and another one about the system in another country. Write a paragraph explaining which you prefer, and why.

Some People Say...

“Criminals should be rehabilitated, not punished.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not planning on going to prison. Can’t I just ignore this?
Perhaps you, or someone you know, will work in a prison one day. Besides, events there have an impact on all of us. If prison is not a deterrent, people may have less incentive to avoid crime. If prison does not work, offenders are more likely to commit another crime. You, or someone you know, may be a victim of that. And if prison were abolished, you may worry that more criminals would be on the streets — or welcome a better chance to rehabilitate them.
But I’m not English or Welsh.
Similar debates about how to handle criminals take place across the UK — and indeed beyond it. Scandinavian countries famously tend to focus on rehabilitation; in many American states, prison is more punishing, in an attempt to deter crime.

Word Watch

HMP Northumberland
This prison in the north-east of England houses up to 1,348 male inmates.
England and Wales
The UK has three legal systems — in England and Wales, in Scotland, and in Northern Ireland, each with its own prison system.
Banned goods.
A cheap, stronger synthetic alternative to cannabis. Synthetic drugs are an increasing problem in prison, partly because they are hard to detect using traditional drug testing methods.
The Ministry of Justice reported 119 self-inflicted deaths in prisons in England and Wales in 2016, 29 more than in 2015 and the highest number since records began in 1978.
Some prisoners have used these to deliver drugs or other banned items to their cells.
Government figures show 84,857 prisoners in England and Wales on December 30th 2016.
The government puts management of some services out to competitive private tender. In 2014 Sodexo Justice Services (part of a French international company) won the contract to run HMP Northumberland as the government aimed to cut £500m from the prisons budget.

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