Inside our failing jails: Former prison governor IAN ACHESON reveals a system ... trends now

Inside our failing jails: Former prison governor IAN ACHESON reveals a system ... trends now
Inside our failing jails: Former prison governor IAN ACHESON reveals a system ... trends now

Inside our failing jails: Former prison governor IAN ACHESON reveals a system ... trends now

Every morning, men and women serving on the front line of His Majesty's Prison and Probation Service pull on a cheap uniform and go to work in what's been called the most hostile work environment in Europe.

The endemic violence in our jails means many of them are ending their shifts in hospital rather than home with their families.

A month ago, an officer went on duty on B wing in HMP Whitemoor, one of our maximum security prisons. He left in an ambulance and was put on a ventilator, unconscious, after a vicious assault.

He's now thankfully recovering. Rates of assault against prison staff run at almost one every hour of every day. Would you work in a place like this?

I used to walk those landings too many years ago. I progressed from officer to senior manager and then senior mandarin. I like to think I know what I'm talking about. I know this experience is causing those in power some embarrassment. Tough.

The endemic violence in our jails means many prison officers are ending their shifts in hospital rather than home with their families, writes Ian Acheson

The endemic violence in our jails means many prison officers are ending their shifts in hospital rather than home with their families, writes Ian Acheson 

Phil Copple, the Director General of Prisons, takes the knee outside HMP Durham on June 10, 2020

Phil Copple, the Director General of Prisons, takes the knee outside HMP Durham on June 10, 2020

Whitemoor is a vivid illustration of the absolute decline of a once proud law enforcement agency. This supposedly escape proof prison (opened two years before terrorists escaped from it) has been rocked by incidents.

This is not surprising as it holds some of the most dangerous and resourceful criminals, including terrorists, in western Europe.

But last year when the Chief Inspector of Prisons visited the place he said it was one of the 'filthiest' he had ever inspected. More than half of staff surveyed said their morale was 'low' or 'very low' and over a fifth said they had never met their line manager to discuss progress.

These are all things that good management can fix – they don't require the extra resources that senior managers sitting in Prison Service HQ always seem to use as an excuse.

And it also begs the question – if a prison holding dozens of Islamist terrorists can't even get the bins emptied, what else more serious is going wrong?

Staffing is an issue of course. The rate of staff attrition – those leaving the service almost faster than they can be recruited - is a serious problem with serious consequences.

An undercover reporter recently lifted the lid on HMP Bedford - one of the most violent prisons in the country - where he was able to get a job as a uniformed operational support grade without any vetting and a day's training to draw security keys and walk in off the street past unmanned scanners into the heart of the prison. He could easily have been carrying drugs, a phone or a firearm.

This is a place that when it rains, the segregation unit floor is awash with raw sewage.

Prison Service Headquarters, replete with senior executives with baffling, duplicating titles where these things should have been spotted and fixed is one of the few growth areas in the business.

In 2013 it has 2,400 bean counters. In February 2024 that figure was 5,681. An out-of-control bureaucracy adding no discernible value to the fraying front line that suffered a 26% fall in officers and huge experience removed that hurts to this day.

Officer safety is simply not a priority for a service soused in woke virtue signalling. I remember being sent a picture of the Director General of Prisons 'taking the knee' outside Durham prison then reeling with an epidemic of drugs violence and despair broadcast on a fly on the wall documentary for Channel 4.

Nothing could more vividly illustrate the gulf between boss class luxury beliefs and the base reality of a system in turmoil.

'Filthy' conditions inside HMP Bedford were exposed during an inspection earlier this year

'Filthy' conditions inside HMP Bedford were exposed during an inspection earlier this year  

Photos showed paint peeling off the walls of dirty cells and battered doors

Photos showed paint peeling off the walls of dirty cells and battered doors

Writing about the destruction of our prison service for my new book, Screwed, was no laughing matter - but there are occasional moments of dark humour.

One of my favourites is the deranged reflexive optimism of the Ministry of Justice after the latest scandal. Take drugs – something that prisoners do in vast numbers.

Every time the Chief Inspector reveals a place awash with gear, the Ministry's spinners will trot out the same line, 'we have a zero tolerance approach to drugs in prison.'

What are they smoking?

HMP Woodhill used to be a high security prison with a special separation unit for active terrorists I recommended the government created after a review of Islamist extremism.

Woodhill lost its Category A designation and that unit had to close because the prison was dangerously understaffed. An inspection last year revealed that random drugs testing showed a positive result for 38% of all prisoners.

In HMP Hindley, inspected in January this year the results were nothing short of scandalous. Over half of the prisoners tested there were high on illegal substances. Drugs are the engine room of violence in prisons due to debt and competition.

Prisoner Denny De Silva, 31, was convicted last year of distributing ISIS propaganda while serving a sentence for murder at HMP Frankland

Prisoner Denny De Silva, 31, was convicted last year of distributing ISIS propaganda while serving a sentence for murder at HMP Frankland

Baz Hockton

Brusthom Ziamani

Baz Hockton (left) and convicted terrorist Brusthom Ziamani were convicted of attempting to murder a prison officer in an Islamic terrorist attack at top security HMP Whitemoor 

The market is enormous and much of it is under the control of organised crime cartels who have a literally captive market and enormous mark ups for product.

We can't even know the true scale of the problem because the prison service redacted its own findings on mandatory random testing in official performance data for 2022/23.

I have my strong suspicion this is because in many prisons, crippled by staff shortages, officers deployed to test for drugs were instead used to maintain safe unlocking ratios on the landings.

But what it means is that we have no visibility on the national scale of the problem, which is likely to be hellish and therefore convenient to ministers and officials alike.

The desperate shortage of staff has also led to a shift in the balance of power

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