But what causes violence in prisons?
The reasons are many and complex, but one of the drivers is the use and cost of phone calls for inmates. Prior to August 2018 the only legal way to phoning in or out of prison was to queue up on the prison landing to use one of the wall-mounted phones.
With very few phones per landing inmates have to queue for long hours to use this communal service. The landings lack privacy and the queue behind inhibits and rushes the inmate who is trying to have a personal and possibly difficult conversation. Tensions easily arise amongst those waiting and often erupt in violence.
This is not the only issue with prison phones though; the cost of phone calls is very high. Inmates ‘wages’ are low, between £5 and £22 a week, and they are allowed another £20 from family outside but can only ‘withdraw’ £20 a week. Many prisoners’ families cannot find this extra £20, they may be on benefits and it be that the family’s only breadwinner is now locked up. Phone calls cost between 6p to 13p a minute, calls to mobile phones are very expensive (in some cases as much as 3 times that cost). So with costs this high, in reality prisoners can only afford perhaps an 8-10 minute phone call each day. This leaves them £10 to buy any other essentials they may need from the canteen. Is ten minutes enough time in tense environment to maintain sensitive contact with each member of your family and sort out any problems that may arise? Prison reformists think not.
Another issue is that prisoners can only call out, it may not be a convenient time to catch family members at home, as they may be at school or work. Prearranged times only work if you are in control of the timing of the landing queue. This escalates the chances of violence erupting when a person misses the prearranged time due to the sometimes deliberate actions of other prisoners.
It is even harder for foreign nationals imprisoned in Britain. They often do not get visits from friends and family and the cost of international phone calls would be astronomical, although some inmates can get a higher credit to call overseas. The loneliness and sense of exclusion can drive violence against other prisoners or lead to self violence.
The challenges of using the prison phones has driven trade of illegal mobile phones in prisons. Mobile phones are said to be the biggest risk to discipline and a decent and secure environment in prisons in England and Wales and are prohibited. However, there has been a massive increase in the smuggling of mobile phones into prisons in recent years. In 2017, 15,000 mobile phones were confiscated, that is nearly one for every six prisoners, a 56% rise over previous years. A mobile phone in prison is priceless, some as small as 7cm are smuggled in through various channels. Mobile phones in prison add to the violence in prisons as they are linked to the trade in drugs, especially ‘Spice and Mamba’. They allow people to carry on dealing inside and outside of prison. However officers agree 4 out of 5 prisoners simply want the phone to call home and they are prepared to risk high consequences to do so.
In the year up to March there were 31,024 assaults in prison, a 50% rise since 2008. 10,000 attacks were on staff. To help reduce this staggering statistic 40 prisons will have in-cell phones by the end of 2021. The phones will have restrictions on who can be called and they can easily be monitored. It is hoped they will take the violence off the landings and reduce the illicit trade in mobile phones. The prisoners will still have to pay the high rates for phone calls but some of the stresses should be relieved. It is too soon to know how they are working as yet. David Gauke says that putting prisons in cells gives the prisoners a level of decency we would expect in our lives and leads to the prisons being humane places people can be rehabilitated, educated and released to be a productive part of our society.