Chris Newby, Hackney Socialist Party
This compelling six-part documentary, filmed over two years, really underlines the deep crisis throughout the criminal justice system. It mainly centres on HMP Winchester, one of the most overcrowded prisons in Britain, but also covers other aspects, such as parole and probation.
The documentary is made up of interviews with prisoners, prison and probation officers, the governor, and parole board members. At times it really is a tough watch, with graphic examples of self-harm, such as a prisoner who opens up his leg with a piece of sharp metal.
The chronic levels of underfunding are starkly borne out. The prison service, along with all other parts of the public service, has seen a slashing of its funding – £410 million since 2011. This resulted in 7,500 experienced prison officers losing their jobs.
There has been a recent increase in officers in some prisons. But, in the case of Winchester prison, in some wings on some shifts there are no prison officers with more than a year’s experience.
Prison officer cuts mean that in Winchester, prisoners are only allowed out of their cells for 45 minutes a day. You can see the pressure that builds up from this, with the filming of a riot that takes place there.
The programme highlights the burden on prison officers. During a riot, reps for the workers’ POA union explain to the governor that – if the riot escalates – they will withdraw their members to a place of safety.
That burden is shown with the resignation of two officers, both fearing for their continued safety. One is an experienced officer who has just had enough, while the other is a new recruit. He gets assaulted and resigns after coming back to work.
Boris Johnson’s recent call for “tougher sentencing” is an example of how prison policy is a reaction to public opinion – and an attempt to shore up political support – rather than a long-term strategy to improve the situation.
One such measure highlighted in the first episode is the introduction of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences in 2005 by Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett – part of Tony Blair’s claim of being “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.”
These sentences have no fixed maximum term. Prisoners are only released after convincing the parole board that they are safe to be released.
Originally, the sentence was for a maximum of 900 prisoners. But at its height, 8,711 prisoners were sentenced on the scheme. Despite being abolished in 2014 as a failure, 3,429 prisoners are still held under this policy.
Crime and Punishment shows the devastating effect on prisoners’ mental health, as they have no clear idea of when they’ll be released.
The programme does not shy away from the brutality of the crimes of the prisoners that they interview. But it is clear that for a lot of these people, rather than being in prison, they need proper access to good mental health services.
Rehabilitation is regularly mentioned by the prison officers and the governor, but they are constantly coming up against the brutal reality of austerity cuts. Some of the officers say, when cuts are being made everywhere else in public services, why would the public support an increase in funding for the prison service?
This programme serves as a damning indictment of the criminal justice system under capitalism, despite the best attempts of many workers involved in it.
- Crime and Punishment was shown on Channel 4, and is available at channel4.com until 20 November