Winston Churchill said that “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”.
I was put in mind of this when the annual report of the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in west London dropped into my inbox earlier this month. Out of curiosity I printed it out, stapled together its 21 pages and read it on the bus home. It made for both compelling and horrifying reading.
Our first married home was directly behind another massive Victorian prison. Occasionally a quiet Saturday afternoon relaxing in the garden would be pierced by the screeching tyres of high-performance police BMWs, in pursuit (we assumed) of villains attempting to lob contraband over the wall into the exercise yard.
There are no votes in prisons, so ministers who show humanity in their approach to the penal system deserve respect – Rory Stewart was in this category, but he’s been moved to a new job.
Chris Grayling, when he was Justice Secretary, tried to prevent prisoners from receiving books from friends or relations, and limit the number of books each prisoner could have in a cell. He said this was to encourage good behaviour, but a High Court ruling found that restricting prisoners’ access to books was unlawful. Michael Gove scrapped the rules when he took over.
Anyway, I hope Wormwood Scrubs has improved since the period covered by the report (2017-18), because it sounds uncomfortable, bleak and frightening – though individual incidents of compassion and kindness are mentioned, as well as some moves towards “a more stable environment”.
The Victorian building itself was actually listed Grade II* 10 years ago because of its high architectural quality and innovative (for the time) “telegraph pole” design, with parallel blocks rather than the radial system.
I also looked up the annual report on an even older jail than the Scrubs – Wandsworth, built in 1851. It is described as “extremely overcrowded”: “the majority of prisoners shared cells, which were designed for one person and were extremely cramped”. That is pretty standard.
Wormwood Scrubs has an operational capacity of 1,279. The religious breakdown of the population is reported as 22 per cent Catholic, 10 per cent Church of England, 30 per cent Muslim, 14 per cent “Other Christian” and 14 per cent “no religion”. Smoking was banned in March, but this did not spark unrest – though the prison in general is described in the period covered as “unfortunately… a dangerous place”.
There were around 50 incidents a month “involving the use of force against prisoners”. The shortage of staff is clearly a problem: mandatory drug testing, for example, had been suspended because of lack of staff.
The picture is one of neglect of basic human necessities. (The construction giant Carillion was responsible for maintenance, and it went bust; the inadequate service has continued under the replacement provider.)
One prisoner spent more than a week in a cell with no water supply and no window during a cold winter. Rats gnawed through cables supplying one of the wings with “network access”. Another wing ran out of toilet paper. The showers were either cold or scaldingly hot, “sometimes leading to fights over access to any that worked properly”.
The boilers didn’t work properly either, so for six weeks during winter half the prison had no heating, including cells with broken windows that were “open to the elements”. Meal times – “the quality [of the food] is variable” – were an occasion for “bullying and violence” for some, along with “plenty of scope for favouritism”; some people did not get enough to eat. The prison “finds it difficult to provide enough clothing at times”.
The medieval-style gatehouse at Wormwood Scrubs, completed in 1885, is described by Historic England as “an iconic symbol of the English prison system”. Looking down from the left-hand tower is a terracotta bust of the great 19th-century prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, who was on the £5 note until recently. (Another penal reformer,
John Howard, is on the other tower.)
Elizabeth Fry was spurred into action after a visit to the dungeons of Newgate prison in 1813. What struck her was how cruelty and neglect brutalise the human character: “The filth, the closeness of the rooms, the furious manner and expressions of the women towards each other, and the abandoned wickedness which everything bespoke are really indescribable.”
I expect somewhere in her mind were the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger … I was naked … I was sick … I was in prison and you came to me.”
I wonder what Elizabeth Fry would make of England’s prisons today.
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph