Like all prisons this one is being required to cut its costs. But will running it more cheaply – which inevitably means reducing staff numbers - do anything to address what seem to be pretty serious shortfalls? Are fewer resources likely to increase the number of prisoners – 11% at the moment -who feel that a member of staff has helped them prepare for release? Or raise from 23% the number of prisoners who say their cell call bell is normally answered within five minutes.
The government will no doubt use the mantra that what matters is not the quantum of resource available but how it is deployed and managed. They might point to modern new prisons where according to their business plan, lower costs can produce improved facilities for the management of prisoners. One such is Oakwood, the
Unfortunately the Prison ratings place both Oakwood -and Thameside, the other private prison which opened last year-, as being of serious concern. Inspectors went to Oakwood last month and there will be little surprise if they report some of the same problems they found at Thameside. There “as an operational response to rising levels of violence the prison had taken the unusual step of effectively locking down the prison, severely curtailing the regime and in particular prisoner access to time unlocked. The prison had done little to evaluate the success of this quite extreme strategy and at the time of our visit there seemed only vague plans to restore the prison to normality”.
Some of the difficulties of course can be put down to the teething problems that accompany the opening of any new prison. Others may result from the simple but highly irresponsible policy of trying to run a prison with too few staff.
The serious problems in the best rated prisons let alone the worst suggest a looming institutional crisis. The Prison system and those who inspect it show too great a degree of tolerance of poor standards and of risk. Such a tolerance was one of the reasons identified by Robert Francis as to why numerous warning signs did not alert the system to the developing disaster in Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust . They must not be unheeded in our prisons.