How many more Charlie Todds must there be before our prisons are reformed?


Show caption Durham Prison, where 18-year-old Charlie Todd was found dead in 2019. Photograph: Rex Features Opinion How many more Charlie Todds must there be before our prisons are reformed? Nick Cohen The suicide of a young inmate points up how indifferent we are now to conditions in jail Sat 29 Jan 2022 19.03 GMT Share on Facebook

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I am sitting at my desk in a Covid-secured Observer newsroom trying to achieve a feat that may be beyond my journalistic skill: to make you care about the vile state of our prisons.

A generation ago, liberal newspapers and the BBC competed to break stories about the degradation inflicted in the public’s name. Now the web has given editors too much information. In the 20th century, they could kid themselves that readers cared. But the click-counters don’t lie and the 21st century has shown that, although readers say they care, as a matter of observable fact they don’t. Prison reform has all but vanished from public debate.

How to break the indifference? Let’s try a statistic. A punch to the gut with a killer fact. Last week, the Ministry of Justice revealed the number of jail suicides was up by 28%. When Covid hit, it ordered most of its 80,000 inmates to stay in their cells for 23 hours a day. Near perpetual confinement slowed the spread of the virus and cut assaults on prisoners and prison officers, which is why ministers are thinking of keeping lockdown going after Covid has gone. But it has been a mental health disaster.

The authorities don’t keep decent records because they know that the public doesn’t care. The Commons justice committee said the best guess it could make was that 70% of inmates have two or more mental health conditions. Locking them in cells for 23 hours a day, week after week, month after month, has pushed many to the edge and over it.

The stats not doing it for you? How about a bit of human life or, rather, a needless death? My editors always told me to grab the readers with a case study and save the boring stuff for later. Prison officers found Charlie Todd hanging in a segregation unit at Durham Prison. Once they might have been saved his life. But as well as defunding the police, the Conservatives have defunded the prison service. Four staff were meant to have been on duty at the unit, but weren’t. Officers said budget cuts meant “on a day to day basis, no one [was] in charge”.

Charlie was awaiting trial for burglary and a more serious wounding charge. Prosecutors later dropped the wounding allegation against his associates, so the odds were they wouldn’t have charged him and he would not even have received a custodial sentence.

His mother, Emma, described “a handsome, loving boy who loved to tell a story and would put a smile on the face of anyone who met him. He was a cheeky chappie, happy go lucky and loyal.” Her son was just 18.

The prisons are stuffed with inmates like him on remand or serving pointless and dangerous short sentences. There’s no time to offer them treatment or rehabilitation. The state holds on to them just long enough to lose them their jobs or the partner who might have persuaded them to go straight.

If the stats don’t make you care about the vile state of our prisons, how about a bit of human life or needless death?

Unsurprisingly, they go out and reoffend. Predictably, Boris Johnson is making a bad situation worse. As part of his despairing efforts to save his worthless backside, the prime minister is inventing policies that might deter Tory MPs from chucking him into history’s dustbin. To prove he’s a tough guy, he announced he would increase the power of magistrates to jail defendants without any of that old-fashioned nonsense about the right to trial by jury. Soon, there will be yet more people sent to prison for short terms. In they will go, out they will come, and back in they will go again.

Still not with me? We are talking about criminals, after all. I accept it’s one thing to lament that we send the most vulnerable to the places we care about least. But prisoners are not the same as autistic kids abused in mental health wards or innocent refugees imprisoned in detention centres. For all that, even when you’ve acknowledged there are inmates who should never be let out, you are still left with tens of thousands of ill and addicted people with trivial criminal records.

Rory Stewart told me that nothing he had seen in Afghanistan or Iraq was “so screwed” as the system he encountered when he became prisons minister in 2018. “Violence had tripled to 30,000 assaults a year, every institution was overcrowded, filthy and rat and drug-infested.” In the poor world, prisons were relatively open. Inmates could leave cells. Their families could bring food. Here, he found only neglect.

Stewart and his then boss, David Gauke, tried to limit the abuse. Johnson has a reverse Midas touch, however: everything he touches turns to dirt. He drove them out of parliament for opposing his extreme version of EU withdrawal and prison reform became just another opportunity to build a better country Brexit destroyed.

The prison service remains Whitehall’s equivalent of a posting to Siberia – an assignment the ambitious and talented run from. When the job of chief executive came up, officials tried to change that. They approached Nils Öberg from the Swedish ministry of justice, which had cut prison numbers and reduced crime. They asked what he would do if ministers and the courts sent him an extra 10,000 prisoners. He replied that he would refuse to cram them into overcrowded jails. The negotiations stopped and you can see why. It’s all very well for Scandinavia to insist on civilised standards but the Brits would never accept them. Can you imagine the rage in the media if the jails closed their doors just because they were full?

They gave the job to one Jo Farrar. Instead of having experience of working in the criminal justice system, she had run Bath and North East Somerset council. She’s presided over a humanitarian scandal, but at least she hasn’t provoked angry headlines in the tabloids.

If you still don’t care, reflect that bad government kills and maims the law-abiding as well as the convicted. Everyone knows that to reduce crime and the suffering it brings to the innocent, you must boost mental health and drug and alcohol treatment services, tackle homelessness and give teenagers after-school sport clubs and summer jobs to absorb their energy. This government hasn’t done it and will never do it and if you are unlucky perhaps one day you will pay the price for its carelessness.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist