Photo by Peter Dazeley
Artillery Row

Criminal stupidity

Sorting your “he” from your “ze” won’t improve places where one would hesitate to keep farm animals

On Friday, the Telegraph ran a piece suggesting that prisoners who misgender other inmates could be charged with offences under prison rules and given additional days in custody if the charge was proven.

Those of us who are interested in safer prisons — as opposed to safer career progression for Ministry of Justice bureaucrats drunk on ideological Kool Aid — are well used to this sort of carry on. But the emergence of identity politics on the landings says something powerful about the priorities and culture of the most performatively self-deprecating law enforcement agency in Britain: Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.

The latest available research from the Ministry of Justice into sexual assaults in our prisons showed what the Governors Union, the PGA, called a “phenomenal” three-fold increase in rates since 2010. Research from the University of Southampton confirmed this sharp uptick and suggested a significant amount of it was related to the forced intimate searching of prisoners by other inmates to recover drugs. They said: “Analysis shows that prisoner-on-prisoner searches are frequent, often premeditated, brutal and appear to be an accepted aspect of everyday prison life.”

Rates of assault against officers were skyrocketing

While it should be possible (if not desirable) to police pronouns as well as this hellish practice with equal vigour, it seems that looking good at no cost is a million miles from being good — when that might require blood on the carpet. Ministers who may be puzzled by this dichotomy can be assisted by the prison services’ own regulations on prison discipline. The text states that “for abuse and neglect to be prevented, standards of behaviour must be set and maintained for prisoners”. Who could argue with this laudable sentiment? But the huge influx of new and inexperienced young officers brought in to replace veteran staff culled by criminally stupid austerity cuts who will now be called on to regulate language, are routinely incapable of enforcing even basic standards of behaviour.

Don’t take my word for it. Countless inspectorate reports on prisons disfigured by drugs and violence, point to the same problem: officers not clearly and confidently in charge, setting the tone and challenging unacceptable behaviour. Increasing chunks of recruit training, already one of the shortest induction courses in Europe, are devoted to diversity and inclusion. The Prison Service intranet is colonised by self-congratulatory drivel on intersectionality and self-auditing on privilege, some of which drove the previous Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland to distraction. On the landings, such high-minded abstractions wither and die in a daily struggle for basic decency and safety. Even with the ill wind of Covid buttoning up prisoners for 23 hours a day, the Chief Inspector of prisons “found that prisoners had been held in degrading and inhumane conditions for weeks at a time. Many cells were damaged and lacked running water or working toilets”. Sorting your “he” from your “ze” won’t improve places where one would hesitate to keep farm animals.

What of the harried and battered front line staff who are supposed to be enforcing identity rules in places where it’s hard enough getting from one end of a shift to the other while still upright? Prior to the Covid mass lockdown, rates of assault against officers were skyrocketing, tracking with an eye-watering number of expensively trained new staff quitting even before their probation was finished. As regimes unfreeze and we return to business as usual, there is little sign that assault rates suppressed for lack of an opportunity to attack staff will remain so. 

It was easier to obtain drugs than a bar of soap

In our women’s prisons, predators come in all shapes and sizes. They now include male bodied sex offenders who can in theory be moved to female establishments stuffed with women who have endured trauma from men, merely by deciding they are women. A legal challenge by a female prisoner against this lunacy was defeated in the High Court in July when, astonishingly, judges ruled in favour of that process. Despite the practice appearing “inappropriate” and “incongruous” and despite the “fear and anxiety” generated by male bodied sex offenders locked into the same accommodation as potential victims, judges ruled that the Prison Service had the capability to weed out those who might have ulterior motives.

It bears remembering that this is an organisation criticised by inspectors for running prisons where it was easier to obtain drugs than a bar of soap, where the flagship sex offender treatment programme in place for 25 years was judged to make some offenders worse. The same organisation with over 5,000 non-operational bureaucrats, which is judged competent to hold the line against predators entering the female estate, allowed one of its local prisons to decline into unacceptable violence. Chelmsford became so unsafe on its watch that in August this year, the Chief Inspector of prisons had to warn ministers directly by letter that Headquarters managers had “failed completely to arrest the drift and decline”.

Lord Wolfson, the justice minister was correct in his response to the Telegraph article when he says that the Prison and Probation Service is committed to “advancing equality, eliminating discrimination, harassment and victimisation” in our jails. Frankly, the best way to do this is to instigate a radical reform of the organisation’s culture and leadership to return it from the MoJ’s social justice paramilitary wing, to what the citizens of this country paying for it expect it to be: a law enforcement agency solely focused on public protection. This means jails that are fundamentally safe, secure, clean, drug free and purposeful, where anybody regardless of their biology or gender or any other irrelevant factor can be helped to rescue their potential.

This can’t happen in an organisation endlessly distracted by fashionable orthodoxies, however good taking the knee or offering pronoun badges in high security sex offender prisons may look on senior managers’ CVs. The fact we have some of the most violent prisons in western Europe, and consistently high reoffending rates, is no accident.

Priorities don’t care about your pronouns.

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