By Jan Needle, author of Kicking Off.
Britain's prisons, unless we're lucky, could possibly give the government a pre-Christmas present they wouldn't like at all. Violence, self-harm and suicide are rising exponentially, and a system that's been creaking at the seams for years is like a boiler with a screwed-down safety valve. If it finally blows, the result could be catastrophic.
The last enormous explosion in Britain's prisons was when Strangeways - an appalling Victorian pile in Salford - finally went up. Friends who worked there at the time said it was truly terrifying. Murderers, rapists, burglars and thugs went on the rampage, bursting out through the roof tiles to hurl missiles and abuse at police and warders huddled down below.
Like many prison bust-ups, it had been in the air for some good time, and my novel Kicking Off dramatizes the process and the aftermath in a chillingly clinical way. When Strangeways blew (it was rebranded as HMP Manchester not long afterwards) jail overcrowding was reaching a critical point. But the 'estate population' then was hovering around the 50,000 mark - since when it's rocketed. At around eighty thousand now, and rising, nobody can be much surprised if it reaches the fatal hundred. And the government is doing something about it, naturally.
In the last few years staff cuts have reached 30% in some prisons, which is a headline figure masking a multitude of evils. Our hard-line prisons supremo, Chris Grayling, seems either unaware, or uncaring, of what the knock-on effects might be. In education, for example, the incidence of illiteracy in prisons is shaming and astonishing, and successive ministers have brought in experts to help the prisoners learn to read. Under one scheme, run by the Shannon Trust, civilian volunteers come into jails to train literate prisoners to teach their less fortunate comrades. Naturally, both pupils and tutors have to be escorted and monitored all the time - and cutting a single member of staff, even temporarily, brings the whole system grinding to a halt. Instead of being helped towards literacy and self-respect, the pupils - and their tutors - are banged up in their cells at a moment's notice. Frustrated. Shamed.
Mr Grayling, despite his protestations, seems to have a thing about books and reading. Most prison libraries are tragically sparse, and their lifeblood is books posted in by friends and family. But Mr Grayling decided to block this artery, on the grounds that families might use it to smuggle in 'inappropriate' things. Despite the protests of all echelons of the service, from governors downwards, he decreed that it was better for prisoners to stare at a blank cell wall to keep them sane, rather than a page of print. Fortunately, High Court judges recently disagreed. The ban, they said, was illegal.
In any case, it is well known that drugs and weapons already get into prisons with remarkable facility. Alcohol as well, smuggled or brewed on the premises, is anything but unknown. Even a mobile phone won't cost you much, if you have the appropriate currency. There's credit, too - with appalling penalties for non-payment...
I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Prisoner numbers up, staff numbers down. Bullying and suicides, especially in the ballooning young persons' institutions, approaching meltdown. And a minister - he calls himself the Justice Secretary - whose answer is the iron fist.
Many in the prison service, I know from personal experience, are deeply uneasy, not to say racked with fear. But the official reaction when an officer spoke out recently was predictable and absolute. She was told in no uncertain terms that she had broken her employment conditions, and faced dismissal for 'bringing discredit on the service.'
She 'd allowed herself to be quoted in the local press that the 30% decrease in staff in the previous two years had made the conditions in her prison frankly dangerous. She cited all the usual suspects - growing violence, rampant self-harming, and a horrifying rate of suicide.
'Kicking Off' may be thought by some to paint a picture that's too lurid. Hostages, murders, army intervention, blood on the streets. As it is a novel, it deals, not surprisingly, with a worst-case scenario. But as time goes on, as more and more jihadist terrorists, highly ruthless gangmen from eastern Europe, drugs barons, human traffickers, and the mentally ill are crammed into a system that is being systematically drained of its residual humanity, I have a depressing feeling that something must soon give. The worst case could become the grim reality.
Chris Grayling, however, insists there is no crisis in the prison system. And that's official.
Jan Needle is the author of Kicking Off, published by Endeavour Press.