Is this the worst prison in Britain?

February 11, 2009 at 11:05 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

ryehill01

It’s a story too mundane to attract much press coverage. This week, an inquest into the suicide of an inmate at Rye Hill Prison ruled that his death could’ve been prevented, and staff had failed in their duty of care. 24 year old Michael Bailey was serving a four year sentence for drugs offences. Bailey entered prison displaying no apparent sign of mental illness, but in the weeks leading up to his death he had started self-harming, experiencing psychotic episodes and mumbling incoherently. After noticing stab marks on his hands and scabs around his neck, Michael’s mother called prison staff to warn that he was a suicide risk. A few days later, he was found dead in a segregation unit, hanging by his shoelaces.

That was March 2005. In the years that’ve followed, this privately-run prison has emerged as one plagued by mismanagement, and beset by violence, drugs and allegations of corruption.

A few months after Bailey’s death, the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned that Rye Hill was “an unsafe and unstable environment”. The Inspector found that discipline was so broken that drugs, alcohol and knives were all freely available, and prisoners were able to bully the staff who were meant to be controlling them. Responding to the report, The Prison Reform Trust commented that it was “one of the most damning reports of a prison we have seen” and that Rye Hill “appears to be run not by a private company, but by the prisoners themselves.”

This sense of lawlessness was graphically illustrated in 2007, when Panorama & The Guardian conducted their own undercover investigation. They found that staff – who earned a third less than their counterparts in the state sector – could top-up their wages by acting as drug couriers for inmates. Intimidation of staff was also widespread; one overly-conscientious warden was threatened that “something bad will happen to her” if she didn’t stop enforcing the rules.

The situation got so bad that Anne Owers declared the management was too inept and the only option was for the public sector to intervene. She cited further damning details, claiming that over half the inmates felt unsafe, that there was not enough supervision by experienced staff, and a failure to properly record and punish all violent disturbances. Her recommendation was rejected.

As David Wilson notes, much of what is wrong at Rye Hill can be sourced back to its private operators. Staff are less experienced, less well-paid and have a much higher turnover than in the public sector, and this has contributed to more chaos and crime than at the average state-run prison. On top of this, the contract awarded to the operators GSL contained a system of penalties which impact on how much they’re paid: discovery of weapons carried a 50 point penalty, assault on a member of staff carried 10, and the suicide of an inmate carried just 1. So the penalty for suicide is too small to care about, and the penalty for discovering weapons is so high that they’re better off not searching for them in the first place. The incentives to ensure safety and rehabilitation seem few & far between.

There’s no doubt that there are some bad people staying at HMP Rye Hill; people who have committed terrible crimes and who fully deserve their incarceration. But the fact remains that the majority will one day be released, and if prisons such as this are hardening criminals, incubating crime, and leaving addiction and mental illness untreated, then they are failing to protect people both inside and outside the prison gates. We can and must do better.

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  1. […] are already paid less, have fewer responsibilities and less experience, leading to pretty ugly consequences. In this pay deal, as with the policy of creating Titan prisons and the part privatisation of the […]


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