If we judge society by how we treat prisoners, we’re failing
By Andy Keen-Downs
The death penalty was abolished in England and Wales in 1965, with the last hangings taking place in August 1964.
We perhaps like to think of ourselves as living in more civilised and enlightened times. Yet more people died in prisons in 2016 than in recorded history. At least 119 men and women committed suicide. Others died as a consequence of drug abuse or violence, and some died of illness or old age.
Many were living in shared cells, designed by the Victorians as being of suitable size for one. Some were ‘banged up’ 23 hours a day, yet with ready access to dangerous psychoactive drugs.
How do we measure up? And what can be done?
Winston Churchill wrote powerfully about what the state of prisons tells us about our society: ‘The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry of all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it in the heart of every person – these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.’
Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for Justice, has inherited a prison system in crisis, and the legacy of under-investment and muddled thinking that goes back decades. It is agreed by prison governors, the prison officers union, and the charities and academics like the Prison Advice Care Trust (Pact) who know prisons inside out, that there are nowhere near enough prison officers to keep prisoners safe and purposefully occupied.
To give her credit, Liz Truss is attempting to tackle this issue, and she deserves our support for that. Neither Michael Gove, for all his good language on prisons, nor Chris Grayling, her two immediate predecessors, grasped the issue. However, there is much more to do to make prisons safe. You only have to ask Dean Saunders’ mum.
Dean Saunders was a family man. He was a good dad. In 2015, without warning or previous history of mental illness, he had a psychotic episode and tried to kill himself with a knife. His dad tried to stop him, and was stabbed in the process. Dean was sent to prison for attempted murder. In prison, he found the means to kill himself.
His mother says she tried to warn the prison that they needed to keep a closer eye on her son. But any right-minded person would have to ask, why was Dean Saunders, a man who was clearly severely mentally ill and suicidal, put in prison in the first place?
The Pact helpline for prisoners’ families used to receive about 100 calls and enquiries via the charity’s website a month. We are now receiving six times that number. Some of the calls are from families who want to find out how to visit a loved one in prison. Increasingly, desperately worried families are getting in touch with concerns that their family member is at risk of suicide, or being bullied and at risk of being hurt by other prisoners. All too often, families are pleading for help with getting through to the prison. Our staff and volunteers support them and advocate for them with the prisons, and provide a lifeline.
I believe that we, as a society, need to do much more to support and listen to prisoners’ families. All too often, I read inquests into suicides in prison which speak of how families were frantically trying to raise concerns about loved ones in prison, but were not able to get their voices heard or be taken seriously. I believe we need a new system for families like Dean Saunders’ parents, a national hotline linked to safer custody teams in prisons, and a guarantee that families’ concerns will be taken seriously.
I know of many prison officers and chaplains who agree that something must be done, and done urgently, particularly for those who face the trauma of finding young men and women dead in their prison cells. Prison officers are people who all too often are left to pick up the pieces from the failure of other public services and policies to care for the most vulnerable.
I also believe that as well as increasing the number of prison officers, we need the Government to invest in secure accommodation for people who are mentally ill and who as a consequence are a danger to themselves or others. People like Dean. It is a grave injustice and, at the end of the day, financially disastrous for the taxpayer to put ever increasing numbers of people in prison. The Howard League for Penal Reform estimates that the cost of a prison suicide is in the region of £2 million. We need to invest in safe, therapeutic medical institutions for people like Dean.
To carry on as we are means that we are complicit in effectively sentencing mentally ill people to death.
The Pact Helpline can be reached on 0808 808 3444.
More information at www.prisonadvice.org.uk.
Andy Keen-Downs is CEO of the Prison Advice Care Trust (Pact) and CEO, Pact Futures.Tags: Dean Saunders, Liz Truss, PACT, prison, prisoners, society, suicide, Winston Churchill