Filth, squalor and violence but at least smoking is banned
Tuesday, August 21, 2018 at 13:18
Simon Clark

I like and admire Rory Stewart.

Writer, diplomat, politician, few MPs have a CV like his.

What an asset he would be as a senior minister in the Foreign Office. Or so you would have thought.

Instead he’s currently in charge of England’s prisons, overseeing a system in which incidents of self-harm and violent assaults are at record levels.

Meanwhile the chief inspector of prisons Peter Clarke has just written a damning report on HMP Birmingham which he describes as the worst prison he has ever been to.

According to the BBC:

Inspectors found blood, vomit and rat droppings on the floor, sleeping staff, cockroaches and an overpowering smell of drugs.

Mr Clarke told BBC Radio 4's Today "surely somebody must have been asleep at the wheel".

"Squalor, filth, the air hanging heavy with the smell of drugs, a dilapidated physical environment, a sense of great instability of feeling that of any time violence could break out.

“This is the only jail, and I've visited many jails now, where I personally was forced to leave a wing because of the effect the drugs were having on me," he said.

On Friday, before these revelations, Rory Stewart hit the headlines by saying he would resign ‘if he hasn't managed to reduce drugs and violence levels in 10 target jails in England’ (BBC News).

If only more minsters took responsibility like this.

My respect for him is qualified however because, in June, Rory Stewart sat before a Commons committee and later tweeted that he was “Delighted to confirm that we have just achieved one hundred per cent smoke free prisons.”

Addressing the committee he announced that this was one of two major achievements (“2,500 extra prison officers” being the other) his department had achieved in the last year.

Bizarrely, he also boasted that “We were ahead of the Scots and we’ve done it.”

Now, I honestly don’t know whether the smoking ban has exacerbated problems with drugs and violence in England’s prisons.

According to Stewart, in a letter to Bob Neil, chairman of the Justice Select Committee:

During implementation, there have been some incidents of low level disorder; and a small number of more serious incidents involving groups rather than a single prisoner. But the occasions when Gold Command has been opened to manage an incident when smoke free was initially sighted as a contributing factor have been in single figures. All other incidents have been successfully managed within the establishment and good order and control has been resumed. All serious incidents are fully investigated and so far it appears the ban is if anything, only a minor contributory factor.

That may be so but I still think it’s a scandal that, at a time when the use of illegal drugs and incidents of violent crime are so high, and the chief inspector of prisons talks of “squalor”, “filth” and a sense that “violence could break out” at any time in one of England’s largest jails, the prisons minister considers it a major achievement to have prohibited smoking, a rather lesser evil in the overall scheme of things.

For the record, here’s Forest’s reaction to Rory Stewart’s announcement on Friday:

Forest has urged the government to tackle the problem of drugs and violent assaults in England's prisons by amending the prison smoking ban and allowing designated smoking areas.

The call follows the announcement by prisons minister Rory Stewart that he will resign if the use of drugs and assaults do not fall in ten problem jails.

Simon Clark, director of Forest, said:

"Incidents of self-harm and assaults in prisons are at record levels and the use of illegal drugs is rife, yet the government insists on banning tobacco, a legal product.

"Allowing prisoners to smoke might actually help address the far more serious problems Rory Stewart is trying to solve."

Challenging the prisons minister – who in June tweeted, 'Delighted to confirm that we have just achieved one hundred per cent smoke free prisons' – to amend the ban on smoking in prisons, Clark said:

"By offering to resign if his programme of reforms doesn't succeed, Rory Stewart has shown himself to be an honourable politician.

"But he also needs to be pragmatic and in the real world a substantial number of prisoners enjoy smoking.

"No-one should be surprised that if you take away one of their few pleasures there will be negative consequences.

"We challenge Mr Stewart to test the theory by allowing designated smoking areas in half of the ten problem prisons he has chosen to target.

"He can then compare one set of prisons against the other to see if permitting smoking makes any difference to the problem of drugs and violent assaults."

See: Prisons minister urged to amend prison smoking ban

Delighted to confirm that we have just achieved one hundred per cent smoke free prisons

— Rory Stewart (@RoryStewartUK) June 27, 2018
Article originally appeared on Simon Clark (
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