Minefields of ticking time bombs just waiting to explode

Pentonville Prison is “crumbling and rife with vermin”. HMP Birmingham is in a “state of crisis”. Prison staff protest over “unprecedented violence” in jails. “Biggest UK prison riot in decades could and should have been prevented,” report finds.

We have been reading one such headline after another for months now, actually years, probably decades. Almost everything about our prison system is failing and contributing to this dire state: chronic overcrowding, understaffing, lack of purposeful activity, easily available drugs, squalor, rises in violence, self-harm, suicide… they are all interlinking, poisonous contributors to what is becoming a system wholly unfit for purpose. Yet still nothing substantial is done.

Artwork from this year’s Koestler Exhibition on the Southbank

We, as a nation, as a society, are continuing to sleepwalk into a crisis that can only end in a Grenfell Tower-like nightmare scenario brought about by cuts and neglect; brought about by certain groups of people not caring about the well-being of other groups. After the event, it will come out that people had been warning the government, councils, officials of the inevitability of a tragic or dangerous outcome for years. They will describe how all their suggestions had been continuously ignored. There will be anger. There will be a promise of an inquest. Apologies will be made, lessons will be learnt, new standards will eventually be put in place. All after the event that could have been avoided in the first place through the use of a tiny bit of common sense.

Another artwork from the Koestler Exhibition

These are human beings’ lives we are ignoring. Not just the lives of the prisoners, but the officers, the families, the victims, the members of each and every community… We as a nation need to understand that it is in EVERYBODY’S interest that we change this country’s policies on the main purposes of prison. That we listen to the experts like the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust. That we stop changing Justice Ministers every five minutes and develop a new vision in which the rehabilitation of prisoners rather than their constant degradation and punishment is seen as the logical way forward for us all. Because releasing even angrier, more humiliated and degraded people back into society does not make sense for anybody.

The Koestler Trust Exhibition can be visited on Level 1 of the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre until 4th November. Open 10am-11pm daily.

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