The state of British prisons: overcrowded, violent and angry

birmingham prison
Birmingham prison, December 2016: prisoner protected then and again in August 2017

On 26 August prisoners at Haverigg in Cumbria staged an angry protest as the prison joined the increasingly long list of those introducing a ban on tobacco. A further upheaval occurred the following week at Birmingham prison. Such disturbances are now routine within a prison system that has always been punitive and austere, and which is once again at a tipping point as both numbers and violence continue to increase. The prison population has doubled since 1980. According to the National Audit Office, there is no consistent correlation between prison numbers and levels of crime. Nicki Jameson reports.

Overcrowded and dangerous

On 7 September the House of Lords debated prison overcrowding, highlighting how ‘The percentage of our population serving prison sentences is almost twice that in Germany, let alone Scandinavia, and very substantially higher than in most of the developed world’.

There are 116 prisons in England and Wales; as of 30 June 2017, they held 85,863 men and women, with 282 children detained in ‘secure training centres’ or secure children’s homes. In Scotland, which has a separate criminal justice system, 7,453 men, women and children were in custody at the same date, while a further 340 were serving the final part of their sentences at home subject to electronic tagging. Out of every 100,000 people, 182 in England and Wales and 170 in Scotland are in prison.

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Letter from Ben Stimson

stimson 2

Ben was sentenced to five years and four months imprisonment on spurious terrorism charges, after he spent four months in Donbass. He is the only British citizen to have been prosecuted for assisting the anti-Government militia in Ukraine. He writes:

I would like to thank all at FRFI/RCG for their letters of support. Also, a big thanks to Manchester RCG for their supporting me at court, especially Martin who has been a great friend and comrade. I’d also like to thank Gerry from Socialist Fight for his solidarity.

Prison in Britain is a brutal and draining experience. While it is known that the government has turned its back on prison officers their attitude towards prisoners quickly eroded any sympathy I had for them.

Instead of blaming those who have made their working conditions dire, they become stuck in a brutal revolving door situation. Prisoners are set up to fall, and there is little in the way of rehabilitation or courses.

Racism is rife among staff. Many prisoners from East European countries would sooner be in prison in their own countries, as prisons in Poland, Romania and other former Soviet countries are more humane.

Thanks for your continued support.

Hasta la Victoria siempre!

Ben Stimson
HMP Manchester (Strangeways),
1 Southall Street,
M60 9AH

G4S – making money from brutalising vulnerable detainees


In summer 2017, staff employed by private security firm G4S, which runs Brook House Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) near Gatwick Airport, were secretly filmed abusing detainees. The footage showed one custody officer allegedly trying to choke a detainee. In other clips, staff were verbally and racially abusing inmates and ridiculing suicide attempts, saying they did not care if detainees died.

The alleged abuse was revealed in a BBC Panorama documentary, aired on 4 September. Callum Tilley, a G4S custody officer at Brook House, was so appalled by the abuse he had witnessed in his time there, that he agreed to wear a hidden camera to film his workmates. Following the programme, 10 G4S staff were suspended.

It was later alleged that G4S, the world's biggest security company, had deceived the Home Office in respect of the profits they made from IRCs. The exact profit margin G4S is contractually allowed to make is not published by the Home Office or the company, but under the original contract, seen by The Guardian, the agreed initial limit to the profit margin was 6.8%. Any profits over that figure were supposed to be handed back to the Home Office. But following Panorama, a former senior manager at Brook House, Nathan Ward, told a House of Commons Select Committee that G4S made far higher profits than their contract allowed.

This is not the first time G4S staff have been caught on camera abusing those they are paid to look after. In January 2016, another Panorama investigation showed staff mistreating children at Medway Secure Training Centre Kent (STC), then also run by G4S. An undercover reporter secretly filmed staff abusing children. One clip showed a custody officer allegedly pressing on a child's windpipe, causing him to say he could not breathe. Other footage showed staff openly talking about falsifying records of violent incidents.

Seven members of staff at Medway were eventually charged with a variety of criminal offences and their trial will take place early next year.

The report of a child saying he could not breathe while being restrained by G4S guards, will stir bitter memories for those who monitor the treatment of those detained in the care of G4S. In 2013, Three G4S guards were acquitted of manslaughter over the unlawful killing of Jimmy Mubenga, who died on a deportation flight to Angola. The court heard that Mubenga told staff who were restraining him that he could not breathe, but his plea went unheard.

And in 2004, at Rainsbrook STC, run then by G4S, 15-year-old Gareth Myatt died while being restrained by three guards. He had refused to clean a toaster which he said he had not used. Three guards restrained him using a technique called a double- seated embrace.

At the inquest into his death, one of the guards said at one stage that Myatt said he could not breathe. Somebody said, ‘If you can talk you can breathe.’

Gareth was five foot six inches tall, and weighed six and a half stone. Between them, his assailants tipped the scale at well over 40 stone.

Last year, an inspection report into Oakhill STC said the use of force against children had doubled since the last inspection. Inspectors said  that levels of force in the two weeks before the inspection were particularly high.

In 2016, in a parliamentary written answer, the government said the cost of keeping a child in an STC was £163,000 per child, per year.

In 2013, G4S was temporarily banned from bidding for government work over allegations of overcharging on contracts to electronically monitor released prisoners. This included allegations that the company had charged for tagging people who had died. In 2014, the ban was lifted in 2014 when the company agreed to repay £109m and put in place a ‘corporate renewal plan’ to prevent any recurrence; however a Serious Fraud Office inquiry remains ongoing.

How many more people need to be abused, or die, in the care of G4S: or how much money must they swindle from the taxpayers, before the government stops signing the fat cheques over to this wretched company?

Video: DIY Cultures panel discussion on prison solidarity – 14 May


The panel was chaired by Hamja Ahsan, who began campaigning in support of prisoners when his brother Talha was imprisoned and subsequently extradited to the US. Speakers were Nicki Jameson, the editor of the Prisoners Fightback page in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! and co-author of Strangeways 1990: a serious disturbance; Leah Jai-Persad, who is a campaigner for freedom for Leonard Peltier and who has written for FRFI about the campaign, and Harriet and Becka from the Reclaim Holloway campaign, which North London RCG comrades have been supporting.

Parole Board keeping lifers behind bars

Swaleside Prison

There is currently a massive population of post-tariff life sentence prisoners overcrowding British prisons; lifers detained long beyond the time originally recommended by the judiciary or Secretary of State. This includes prisoners sentenced under the Indefinite detention for Public Protection law which, although now scrapped, has left a legacy of thousands of prisoners. Britain has more indeterminate sentence prisoners than the whole of Europe combined: a consequence of a ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key’ culture that pervades the judiciary and justice apparatus. Parole Board collaboration in detaining lifers who represent little or no actual risk to the community was typified in my own case in June 2017, when, after 37 years’ imprisonment – more than ten years beyond the original judicial recommendation – the Board denied my application for release for nakedly political reasons. John Bowden writes from HMP Swaleside.

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