Fixing the windows

Sheila Chapman

The state of our prisons reflects badly on our society

“If you don’t fix the first broken windows, soon all the windows will be broken.”

Those are the words of American political scientist, James Q. Wilson, one of those behind the ‘broken windows theory’ on the impact of the environment on crime. According to Wilson, if a few broken windows on a street were left unrepaired, more serious vandalism tended to follow. That in turn made violent crime more likely to occur: disorder escalating until full-scale social blight took hold.

In a prison, a broken window signifies to a prisoner that the society that removed his liberty no longer cares about him – his material comfort, his wellbeing and, by implication, his rehabilitation. It signals, too, to the prison officer that society does not value the job she does enough to maintain a decent and safe working environment.

There are other less abstract consequences. Broken windows serve as portals through which the criminal community outside prison and within it can transact. In Pentonville, a category B local prison in Islington – London’s poster-borough for inequality of opportunity – drones fly over the wall and deposit their cargo of phones, drugs and weapons into cells. The availability of phones facilitates an illicit trade in drugs, resulting in a culture of fear and intimidation where self-harm and assault are commonplace. The drugs being droned in are often new psychoactive substances. Practically impossible to detect, these substances cause inmates to behave unpredictably and often violently.

In its last annual report to the Ministry of Justice in July last year, Pentonville’s independent monitoring board said:

“Pentonville has had the ambition to replace windows for 2 years. In October 2015 the Minister for Prisons wrote to the IMB saying that MoJ Estates had developed a proposal and would submit a business case for funding. By December a business case had been agreed. At the time of finalising this report – June 2016 – only 10 windows have been replaced. And not 10 of the worst because the glazing units were the wrong size. 100 more are supposed to follow. Everyone is waiting.”

By now, a few more windows have been replaced – but Carillion, the private firm which has the building’s maintenance contract, has quite a way to go to finish the job.

In the past six months, Pentonville has seen the murder of one inmate and the escape of two others. There have been riots at Lewes, Bedford and Birmingham prisons and disturbances at others. Beleaguered prison officers have taken industrial action and across the prison estate violence and self-harm is rising. Every third day an inmate commits suicide. The media proclaim a ‘crisis in our prisons’ as if it were a sudden or unexpected phenomenon. Actually the drug-fuelled violence in Pentonville and the rest of the prison estate has been well documented by monitoring boards throughout the country for several years. It has been highlighted by the prisons inspectorate, which said last year: “We continued to find evidence that self-harm was linked to bullying, violence, debt and the prevalence of new psychoactive substances and yet too little was done to address the underlying issues.”

Finally it seems that the government has taken notice. Its white paper, Prison Safety and Reform, published in November, contains proposals to tighten prison security, including no-fly zones over prisons, investment in anti-drone technology, teams of search dogs and the installation of scanning wear and X-ray machines in jails. Ambitious plans indeed for an administration that in three years hasn’t managed to fix some broken windows in Pentonville. And these costly, long-term solutions might never come to pass, dependent as they are on the government managing, in this environment of austerity, to drum up public support for spending on prisons – notoriously difficult at the best of times.

Meanwhile in Pentonville, staff shortages mean there is little opportunity for meaningful interaction between officers and inmates. The cells built in 1842 to house one man, now typically house two. Inmates with mental health conditions and/ or addictions are, despite the best efforts of healthcare and prison staff, not always getting access to the therapeutic interventions that might break the cycle of crime. Prisons have a budget of just £2 a day to feed men, including growing teenagers, and they are often left hungry. Centralised procurement results in men not having sufficient clothes or clothes of the right size or necessary sanitary items like incontinence pads.

To conclude with another quote from Wilson: “The most remarkable change in the moral history of mankind has been the rise – and occasionally the application – of the view that all people, and not just one’s own kind, are entitled to fair treatment.” Those in prisons, whether they be officers, healthcare professionals or inmates, are entitled to fair treatment. We must fix the windows.

This article won a Jenny Jeger prize for shorter writing 2017

  • (will not be published)

Please read our community standards