Prison system: Celebrity visit highlights ailing prisons

Penal system
Celebrity visit highlights ailing prisons

Princess Kate visits HMP High Down prison in Sutton. photo

© Kin Cheung/AP Pool/AP/dpa

His Majesty’s Prisons – the official title of British prisons is impressive. The reality is often different. A prominent German prisoner also experienced everyday life with violence and poor hygiene.

Kate in prison: The future queen actually wants to talk about help for addicts in the High Down prison near London. But Princess Kate’s visit also highlights the often miserable prison conditions His Majesty’s Prisons. Overcrowding, rat infestations, gang violence, staff shortages.

His Majesty’s Prisons are considered to be completely dilapidated. Some of the buildings date from the 19th century and have never really been modernized. Just a few days ago, a terror suspect made a spectacular escape from London’s Wandsworth Prison, one of the most famous prisons in the country.

Conditions in some prisons in England and Wales are described as worrying, even in official documents. At the end of July, Wandsworth received the lowest possible rating in a review. During inspections it was found that up to 80 percent more inmates were accommodated there than intended. It is “still one of the most overcrowded prisons in the country, and most prisoners share a single cell,” the responsible supervisory authority noted.

Cinematic escape

Local MP Rosena Allin-Khan criticized the fact that seven judicial officers were responsible for 1,500 prisoners in one night. Another time there was no running water for six days.

It was probably such grievances that made the cinematic escape possible last week that the country is still talking about. In his chef’s uniform, a 21-year-old sneaked out of the prison kitchen, tied himself under a van with strips from his bed linen – and escaped. For days, officials searched for the ex-soldier, who is said to have planted dummy bombs on a military base, among other things. Finally a plainclothes police officer caught him.

After escaping Wandsworth, 40 prisoners were transferred to other prisons. As a precautionary measure, as Justice Minister Alex Chalk emphasized. But questions remain. Why was a terror suspect not housed in a maximum security prison, but in a detention center that is considered a transit station for those who are about to be tried or who have just been sentenced? Or: Why was a terror suspect allowed to work in the kitchen? This will now be investigated.

Boris Becker: “You fight for survival every day.”

The German ex-tennis star Boris Becker also described difficult hygienic conditions and conflicts among the prisoners after his release from prison. “It was very brutal, a very, very different experience to what you see on TV and hear in stories,” Becker told the BBC in April. He quickly learned that he needed protection and that he had to surround himself with “tough guys.” “You fight for survival every day.” In Wandsworth, a prisoner tried to blackmail him, Becker said – fellow prisoners protected him. On Sunday, an inmate was stabbed and seriously injured by another.

There are no reforms in sight for English prisons. Human rights organizations have been denouncing the conditions for a long time. According to the World Prison Brief website, the 118 prisons in England and Wales are operating at 111 percent of their official capacity, housing more than 87,000 prisoners. For comparison: In Germany the occupancy rate is around 78 percent.


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