Don't Throw Away The Key On Our Prisons

03/09/2017 15:44 BST | Updated 03/09/2017 15:44 BST

Last week we heard of an injection of drugs into Wandsworth Prison because one of the sniffer dogs was on holiday. With August coming to a close it is perhaps no surprise to get one last silly season story in. Unfortunately, as silly as it may sound, it serves to highlight a fundamentally worrying symptom of a disease that has been spreading in the prison system for decades. A chronic lack of recognition and attention.

Her Majesty's Prison Service is one of our least glamourous public services, and rarely receives the public and political attention that our other front line services such as police, fire and health obtain. We see the sirens, the fires put out and the lives saved, but in the prison service the work all takes place behind locked doors - that being the point and all.

Previous governments have looked at this issue in the past, Ken Clarke has twice had a go. But the fact remains it is not a politically safe way of spending public money. Tax payers don't generally like the idea of their hard earned contributions being spent on ne'er-do-wells. Indeed it is politically popular to throw more and more people behind bars (as the Labour government did significantly in the late 90s and early 2000s) and then not so popular to spend the money building new prisons and ensuring these people don't need to go back again.

The Coalition got off to a good start by opening up the participation of charities and private sector providers in the rehabilitation process, and introduced payment-by-results models that are showing some signs of success. Yet, against a backdrop of austerity, wider investment in the system has been extremely limited - and now we have more than just cracks in the system, the foundations are starting to crumble.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, warned at the beginning of the summer that many of our prisons are not functioning, and that there wasn't a single youth prison that he deemed safe.

As someone who worked at two London prisons between 2009-2011 (not that long ago) I am shocked by his findings. Prisons are by their nature rough places, and it is a place of work where you need to remain constantly vigilant, and yes I had a few hairy moments during my time there. But I always felt safe enough to go in everyday. I always had the confidence that there were generally enough officers around to intervene if required. It seems this is no longer the case in many of our prisons.

Security is at the core of a successful prison regime (obvious, right?), not just because keeping them in keeps the public safe, but also a safe and secure prison environment allows for far more constructive work with the prisoners. A secure prison means prisoners can go to work, teachers can teach, counsellors can counsel, and so on. A strung out prison means regular lock-downs, and that means prisoners simply sit in their cells, getting board and bullying each other - an environment not far removed from the Victorian era in which many of our prisons were built. That environment is a waste of time and a waste of money. We cannot afford to throw away the key on our prisoners.

We have a choice as a society. We can give in to a baser desire to simply punish criminals (and I am not denying the need for punishment), or we can accept that these people will be released at some point and it is in all of our interests that they do not return. Unless we are going to lock people up forever or shoot them on mass, release, I'm afraid, is an inevitability.

Crime rates have been on a downward trend for many years, that trend will reverse rapidly if our prison system fails. Broken prisons simply perpetuate a cycle of increasingly hardened criminals hitting the streets to do more damage to peoples lives.

There is no denying that the government has some big political fish to fry in this Parliament, but when doesn't a government? We can no longer afford our prisons to be put on the backburner. Fixing them is the politically expedient thing to do as well as the morally right thing to do. Because when the riots start and the crime rates soar, who do you think the public are going to blame? Theresa May, when Home Secretary, used to joke of her justice secretary colleague "I locked 'em up, he let 'em out." Now as Prime Minister I hope these words do not come back to haunt her.