The report on Liverpool prison is the canary in the coal mine and it compels us to act

Advent is always a busy time for journalists, and the last few weeks of 2017 were particularly eventful. A Royal engagement, a Cabinet resignation, Brexit papers and blue passports all made the headlines, but it was a quite different story that ought to have been of most concern to conservatives.

A report on conditions inside Liverpool prison, leaked to the BBC, described them as the worst ever seen by inspectors. Rats and cockroaches were rife, and some areas were so hazardous that they could not be cleaned. It was easy to get drugs, but much harder to get help – half of the prisoners said that they had been victimised by staff, and one in three said that they felt unsafe. Healthcare was failing. Self-injury was rising.

Liverpool’s story of abject failure is a canary in a coal mine – a reminder that, as minds turn to the next stage of the Brexit negotiations in the New Year, the government neglects domestic policy at its peril.

No public service in England and Wales has deteriorated more dramatically and more profoundly in recent years than the prison system. If Liverpool really is the worst prison in the country, other official inspection reports published in 2017 have revealed that it faces stiff competition.

Violence was so severe in Aylesbury, a prison holding 18- to 21-year-olds, that the young people were afraid to leave their cells. Feltham, a west London prison holding children, was “quite simply, not safe for either staff or boys”. Even the inspectors felt unsafe when they visited Garth, in Lancashire. In Cookham Wood, a prison for 15- to 18-year-olds in Kent, a child was assaulted every six days.

Haverigg prison, in Cumbria, was at the centre of a major police investigation. Two men had escaped from Pentonville prison, in London, and another had been murdered. Men in Lincoln prison slept in their clothes because the heating did not work. One in four men released from Exeter prison had nowhere to live. 

Brixton prison, in London, was found to be “awash with drugs”. In Birmingham prison – the scene of a riot in 2016 – one in seven men had acquired a drug habit since arriving in the jail. The same went for Bristol. In Northumberland prison and in Featherstone prison, near Wolverhampton, the ratio was one in five. In Guys Marsh, in Dorset, it was one in four.

Each week brings new tragedies. A person dies by suicide in prison every five days. More than 110 incidents of self-injury and 75 assaults are recorded in prisons each day. There are surely more that go unreported.

If we are to get out of this mess, we must first understand how we got here.

More than 85,000 men, women and children will have spent Christmas in prisons in England and Wales. The prison population has more than doubled since the mid-1990s. We lock up more people than any other nation in Western Europe, with an incarceration rate twice as high as Germany.

As the prison population has grown, so overcrowding has got worse. Three in four men’s prisons are holding more people than they are designed to accommodate.

The figures are eye-watering. Wandsworth, a London prison designed to hold no more than 943 men, is creaking with a population of 1,564 living in squalor. In Leeds, there are more than 1,100 men crammed into a jail designed for 669. Lincoln prison has room for only 403 men, but it is being asked to look after 663. The list goes on.

Overcrowding on such a scale was never sustainable. When austerity came, the impact was disastrous. Research by the Howard League for Penal Reform has shown how the number of front-line officers in some jails was cut by up to 40%. A major recruitment drive has begun in an attempt to plug the gaps, but many experienced officers have left and, perhaps unsurprisingly, retaining new ones is proving difficult when prisons are in such a parlous state. 

With fewer staff available to escort prisoners to work, education and exercise, jails have gone into lockdown with men spending up to 23 hours per day inside their cells. Inspectors found that some men in Swinfen Hall prison, in Staffordshire, had to wait for four days for the chance to have a shower.

Such conditions fuel tension. Deprived of purposeful activity, prisoners will look for other ways to make the time go by faster. It is surely no coincidence that drug use has escalated. Where there are drugs there is debt, and where there is debt there is bullying and violence. 

None of this is going to help prisoners become law-abiding citizens on their release. It is dangerous for prisoners and staff, and it is dangerous for the public, too, because problems in prisons will in time spill out into communities. So while events in Brussels will surely dominate the headlines again in 2018, Ministers cannot afford to be distracted from pressing issues at home.

The Rt Hon David Lidington MP – our fifth Secretary of State for Justice in five years – has said that he wants to see the prison population fall. Circumstances require him to do all he can to make this aspiration a reality. By taking sensible steps to bring down numbers, we can save lives, protect staff and prevent more people being swept away into deeper currents of crime and despair.

Rob Preece is Campaigns and Communications Manager at the Howard League for Penal Reform