What’s it going to take? Does a British prison officer have to die trying to do their job to make the government listen? Will a death suffice?
“I think it will take another Strangeways,” says one prisoner, referring to the 1990 prison riots – the biggest in modern times – in which 147 prison officers were injured and the repair billed topped £50 million. And it’s clear we are nearly at that point.
In the absence of government action, another six officers have taken the hit. Following an outbreak of violence at HMP Long Lartin Prison, which began Sunday morning, six officers have been seriously injured. Three have sustained head injuries, two have fractured jaws and one has a broken arm.
Initial official reports said the officers had suffered minor injuries and were treated at the scene; the authorities clearly still believe it is better to cover up a problem than face it. I called the press team from the Ministry of Justice to ask who came up with this work of fiction, and they assured me this version of events was not issued from their office.
Specialist Tornado response officers were brought in to deal with the disorder and quash the uprising. They are used to operating here in Long Lartin; they have resolved riots here before.
Almost twelve months ago, on the evening of 11, October 2017, during a disturbance on E wing, 81 prisoners attacked staff with pool balls. Staff were forced to retreat and ten Tornado teams were needed to resolve the disorder.
Long Lartin is a dangerous place. In the prison community it’s known as “Paranoia City”. A supermax segregation unit (the biggest in Europe) at Long Lartin is designed to hold the most violent and dangerous types of offenders.
And it is vast: it holds 510 prisoners, three-quarters of whom are serving life sentences.
I spoke to a former inmate. He spent close to ten years inside the place which he described to me as intense:
“The cells are tiny – you can more or less touch both walls with your arms outstretched. And there are no toilets in cells – most still use buckets. It’s properly rough.
“The design of the place doesn’t help. The cells are down long corridors, like spurs. Because the cells are so small, the lads hang their stuff outside their cells in bags. For officers, it’s a properly intimidating place to be.
“The gangs are really the ones in control. Many of the gang leaders refuse to even acknowledge the prison staff; they communicate via a weaker prisoner who works as a go-between.”
In January, 2018 inspectors reported that HMP Long Lartin was stable and well-controlled; in June, 2018 the prison’s female Governor, Clare Pearson, was attacked and hit in the face by an inmate. It was an unprovoked attack. And still the government seems determined to ignore the obvious truths of life inside this institution.
Well controlled? Two murders since 2014, a riot in October 2017, the Governor attacked in 2018, and now three officers with broken faces and arms.
If this is stable and well controlled I would hate to see the government’s idea of violent and disorderly.
Back at the coalface, I never cease to be amazed by the stoicism of the prison officers despite the dangers they face and the horrific injuries inflicted on them by inmates. In truth, both prisoners and prison officers want the same thing: to complete their shift or sentence as efficiently and as painlessly as possible.
But they know they cannot do it properly with so few hands to help. Many officers likely feel despair at being forced by cuts and redundancy out of a job they love – and would still love, given the chance.
Not too long ago a young mum wrote to me – we'll call her Sarah. She has ten years' experience working as a prison officer in understaffed London prisons. She has a partner who also works in the prison system, and a young daughter under five.
I was struck by how much like a regular young mum Sarah sounded, just like many of my mates on the school run or at work – until I read her story that she shared in an email with me:
“We are battered and bruised on a daily basis. I've been spat at and have had threats of feces being chucked on me. A colleague had the humiliation of having feces rubbed in her face.”
This was never a normal job. But it’s an increasingly untenable one.
A meteoric rise in the prison population together with a catastrophic reduction in prison officers was never going to be an equation that resolved well.
Long Lartin took a 20% budget cut in 2015, and like so many other prisons it is dangerously understaffed, resulting in more inmates spending most of their time in cramped cells.
In August the prisons minister, Rory Stewart, vowed to resign if a fresh government plan to cut spiraling violence in jails fails to deliver. He promised a £10 million spend to curb violence in our jails. And yet I fear his resignation will be insignificant, and the increased budget merely a drop in an ocean that is building up for an almighty storm.
When the next Strangeways happens, as it surely will, it may cost the government, the country and all of us dearly but, unlike the prison officers on the front line, we won’t be paying with our lives.