Monday, 29 February 2016

High as a Kite - Behind Bars

Back in July 2014 I started blogging on the subject of so-called ‘legal highs’ in prison (read post here). Since then, the issue has come to dominate media coverage of our increasingly dysfunctional prison system.

Spice up your life... visit a hospital
Recently, we’ve seen Nick Hardwick, the former Chief Inspector of Prisons, warning of the threats posed by what are now being called ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ (NPS), variously known by generic names such as Black Mamba, K2 and Spice, as well as ‘herbal highs’. In addition, there is rarely an official report on any specific establishment that doesn’t flag up the rising tide of drug use.

The most recent warning reports about NPS – all published during February this year – have concerned HMP Cardiff (causing ‘horrific injuries’), HMP Dovegate (a ‘major contributing factor’ in riots), HMP Bristol (‘a huge and disruptive’ problem) and HMP Ranby (‘overwhelmed’, with fears for the prison’s stability and safety). However, in reality pretty much every prison in the UK now seems to be affected by what resembles an epidemic of drug abuse and violence.

The national and local media are also reporting on the crisis. There is a regular demand for ‘insider’ comment and over the past year or so I’ve been interviewed  on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, Radio 4, Radio 5 Live and have also been quoted in a feature in The Economist (read article here).

Video still of a prison fight
Of course, drugs are only part of a much wider problem in our jails. The prison drugs trade goes hand in hand with violence, bullying and self-harm. It may well be one factor fuelling the rising suicide rate. Based on my own observations in several different prisons, I believe that there is also a close correlation between the internal prison drug trade and the widespread availability of illicit mobile phones and SIM cards. Ironically, evidence of prisoner-on-prisoner violence inside jails occasionally leaks out through photos and videos made on these contraband mobiles.

Unmonitored mobile communications are a vital tool in the smuggling business. Orders for ‘product’ can be placed with suppliers, gang members, family or associates back in the home community. Arrangements for mules and package drop-offs can be made. Prices in other jails can be compared and debtors who have been transferred when still owing money can be tracked and pressured to pay up – or can face punishment beatings on arrival in their new location. Debtors’ families can be intimidated or threatened unless their loved one’s debts are settled, either in cash or through being forced into smuggling drugs during visits.

Personally, I believe the ‘legal high’ problem began to escalate significantly during 2012. I first became aware of ‘Spice’ in a Cat-B prison when a Dutch lad, inside for drug dealing offences, started supplying pinches to other cons to mix with their regular rolling tobacco (‘burn’). I heard whispers about fresh deliveries coming in, although the route was never disclosed. Within a couple of months, use on our wing, and others across the prison, became commonplace.

These early substances seemed closer in effect to traditional cannabinoids. They relaxed the user and people just dozed off, although a few did vomit or shake. I recall having to support one mate who had been smoking the blended tobacco back to his cell and put him to bed before wing staff noticed the state he was in. He just slept it off, but complained of a stonking headache the next morning. I’m sorry to say that this didn’t discourage him and he was soon a regular ‘spice head’.

Mamba... call for a mambulance
Gradually, other ‘brands’ of NPS arrived in prisons: Black Mamba, Amsterdam Gold, China White. Most were substances that mimicked the effect of cannabis, although others were closer to cocaine (methylphenidates). The latter substances tend to make users excited and sometimes aggressive. Both main types of high can fuel a sense of paranoia – something that is already rampant behind bars – and this can also lead to violent outbursts and other very disturbed behaviours.

One of the additional complications in prisons is that a significant number of inmates are already taking medication prescribed for depression or other mental health conditions. Some are on the methadone programme for heroin addicts, while others are using meds issued to others but sold or traded on the wing as a commodity. When you add NPS – the chemical composition of which is never certain – the result can be a dangerous form of Russian roulette. Will the impact be pleasant and relaxing, or will it induce vomiting, racing heart rates and even fits?

There have even been reports of prisoners being used as guinea pigs in crude chemical trials to see what effect a new batch of contraband substance is likely to deliver. Whether the participants are willing or are being bullied or threatened into testing these highs is difficult to determine, but evidence suggests that such practices are going on in certain establishments.

I have seen at first hand the negative impacts of widespread drug use in prison. Evening roll-checks in open prison where a long line of spaced-out cons staggered towards the office. Washrooms covered in vomit, WCs blocked, inmates passed out on the floor or heaving on their bunks. Ambulances – dubbed ‘mambulances’ – at the gate to pick up yet another prisoner who had been found lying on the floor in his own excrement and urine while having a fit.

Illicit image of prison beating
The culture of violence is perhaps the worst aspect. A young, vulnerable lad being summoned to a cell far from the wing office to be systematically beaten by three much larger cons until he was battered, bloody and sobbing because he couldn’t pay his drug debts. I heard his pleas for mercy and then his screams. He was forced to clean up his own blood with his clothes before his tormentors kicked him out onto the wing, still deeply in debt and terrified of the next torture session he might face.

In open prison I have seen prisoners throwing away any chance of release on parole for years because they had run up drug debts they couldn’t pay. They then felt obliged for their own safety, or that of their families, to request a transfer back to a closed prison or even to abscond by running off.

Drugs – legal and illegal – get into our prisons because there is a growing demand. Life in many jails is now so grim, with restricted regimes, 23 hour bang up, little opportunity for work, education or exercise, that gambling with your health by smoking, sniffing or swallowing God knows what is considered a risk worth taking just to ‘get your head out between the bars’, as I’ve heard it called. My own estimate is that 40-50 percent of inmates were using by 2014, but more recent studies by leading academics working in this field suggest that as many as 60 percent of serving prisoners are likely to be misusing NPS or other drugs.

MDT sample
Moreover, the current absence of any Mandatory Drug Testing (MDT) for legal highs has made it almost impossible to prove that a prisoner has been using a contraband substance. Until and unless effective detection can be introduced for the wide range of chemical compounds (which change regularly), there is very limited deterrence in prison. At present, the usual disciplinary charge is possession of an unauthorised item, rather than a specific drugs offence.

Being a cog in the prison supply chain can be profitable, although nothing like as advantageous as it is for the barons who supply in bulk. Given the relative cheapness of legal substances on the street (sold as herbal incense), the returns can be substantial, while the actual risks of prosecution are very low.

Like all contraband, drugs of every kinds are smuggled into prisons through a wide range of routes. Newly arrived prisoners may be ‘packing’ or ‘plugging’ (concealing packages of drugs and other items in their rectums), while small wraps of drugs or pills can be passed over in the visits hall by family, friends or criminal associates. Even the nappies of visiting babies can be used. Attempts are also made to throw packages over high prison walls, while more recently there have been instances of small drones being used to breach prison security.

Staff shortages, poor morale on the frontline, too few security officers, not enough trained drugs dogs… all of these issues play contributory roles in producing an environment where the risks of smuggling contraband are considered worth taking – especially for the barons who get others to do most of the dirty work for them. Add in overcrowded wings populated by willing consumers and the stage is set for a perfect storm of drug-fuelled debt and violence, with the inevitable casualties. It’s also worth remembering that some of the worst, most violent prison riots in world history have occurred when rioting inmates have looted internal medical facilities after staff members have lost control.

Contraband mobile phones in a cell
Following my recent blog post on the subject of corruption among prison staff (read here), I have received messages of support from both serving and ex-prison officers who resent the ‘rotten apples’ in their ranks, as well as predictable pressure from a few vocal individuals who would prefer me to ‘shut up’ and stop drawing attention to the issue, even though these serious problems are also being flagged by Nick Hardwick, former senior police officers and others who have first-hand experience of corruption in our prisons.

I am personally convinced that the sheer quantities of drugs and mobile phones currently available in our prisons would not be possible without some degree of involvement by individual members of staff. This includes a small minority of uniformed officers, but also some civilian workers and authorised contractors who enjoy freedom of access to specific prisons. In addition, almost any external consignment entering prison gates could conceal contraband items ready for internal contacts to retrieve and pass on.

With its usual sense of ‘urgency’ the government recently moved to criminalise the manufacture and sale of psychoactive substances (although not the mere possession) by means of the controversial Psychoactive Substance Act (2016) which will come into effect in April. However, there is doubt whether the new legislation will really reduce demand or consumption – whether in prison, where possession will become a new criminal offence – or out in the wider community. Judging by the failure of the so-called global war on drugs over decades, the prospects for success do not appear very positive. What is certain, however, is that there is no end in sight to the drug-fuelled crisis wreaking havoc across our prison system.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Prisons: the Elephant in the Room

It’s official. Our prisons are failing and deep in crisis. It must be true because even the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has now said so. Of course, none of these revelations come as any great surprise to anyone who has worked in a prison, or been incarcerated in one, but it seems that sorting out the mess is now some sort of priority – at least on paper.

Don't mention the elephant...
Regular readers of this blog – which launched back in July 2014 – will be only too familiar with all the grim themes: chronic overcrowding, acute staff shortages, prisons awash with drugs of all kinds, as well as illicit mobile phones aplenty. Rising tensions and frustrations fuel violence against staff and fellow inmates and the statistics for suicide and self-harm are climbing. The cherry on top of this unappetising confection is rock-bottom staff morale, especially on the frontline where salaries start at just £19,000.

All of this was well known to politicians, civil servants, academics and prison reformers alike long before Michael Gove started to unpick the tangled web of denial and meaningless platitudes that characterised his predecessor Chris Grayling’s regime down at the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) headquarters in London’s Petty France. Day by day, this grim, brutalist edifice came more to resemble George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth from Nineteen Eighty-Four as lies and half-truths were disseminated. 

Newspeak dominated the MOJ’s public outpourings. Riots became ‘concerted indiscipline’ (although the smashed fixture and fittings on the wings remained the same), while prisoner suicides were dismissed as an inconvenient ‘blip’ by the master of callousness himself, Grayling, who also peddled the mendacious whopper that the prison system Was Not In Crisis, even though all the evidence suggested otherwise.

Crisis: What Crisis?
A key plank in the Grayling-era communications strategy was to deny everything – to the extent of trying to bully HM Inspectorate of Prisons into whitewashing its damning annual report – while rigidly excluding anyone from visiting our dysfunctional jails who could legally be denied access. Journalists, academic researchers, prison reform campaigners and even elected politicians found the gates firmly locked during the nightmare years. 

As one Guardian journalist famously remarked (see here), it was easier to get into Vladimir Putin’s hellhole military prisons in Russia than it was to get permission from the MOJ to visit a jail in England and Wales. She also asked in her article on the subject, what was Chris Grayling trying to hide?

Since the media lockout of prisons was lifted by Mr Gove it has become painfully clear why Grayling and his minions were so determined to keep nosey hacks out. The latest feature to appear in The Guardian, written by Amelia Gentleman – appropriately the very journalist who made the infamous quip about visiting Russian jails – is devastating. It dissects in painful detail the sheer state of dereliction and demoralisation in HMP Wandsworth. From broken windows to shattered minds, her report (see here) exposes much of what Mr Grayling was so anxious to hide from the wider public.

However, it is also true that a two-day media visit can only allow for the mere scratching of the surface. While the prison’s dilapidated wings may be noisy enough during the daytime, it is the sheer horror of what happens at night when 1,200 men – many of them deeply disturbed, suicidal or very angry – are locked behind their doors with just seven staff on duty across the establishment.

HMP Wandsworth: a pit of despair
In recent months there have been repeated stories in the media about the prevalence of drugs – illegal and legal (herbal highs, steroids) in prisons. Although some establishments are worse than others, it is an acute problem that many inside the system, as well as prison inspectors and members of Independent Monitoring Boards (IMBs), cite when trying to explain the significant increase in recorded incidents of violence. 

Some point to the availability of drugs, especially the so-called ‘New Psychoactive Substances’ (NPS) such as Black Mamba and Spice, as fuelling a culture of debt and violence, that in turn is driving up the number of cases of self-harm and suicide. This is certainly the view of HM Inspectorate of Prisons as can be seen from inspection reports in recent years.

However, virtually none of the latest crop of media articles or broadcasts seems to be able, or willing, to get to grips with the inconvenient truth that corrupt staff (both uniformed and civilian, as well as approved contractors) are a significant source of the drugs entering the prison supply chain. Predictably, the latest Guardian expose of Wandsworth dwells on the use of drones, packages thrown over the wall and prisoners smuggling drugs and mobile phones or SIM cards ‘packed’ in body cavities, but makes absolutely no mention of bent prison staff getting in on what is a very lucrative commercial activity, whether by choice or because they have been compromised and are being blackmailed by prisoners or their associates back in the community.

BOSS chair, but is it working?
As staff shortages and budget cuts have eroded prison security, so those staff members who are corrupt (or are being blackmailed) have less chance of being caught red-handed bringing contraband in through the gate. As the Guardian article helpfully points out, none of the electronic security equipment in Reception at Wandsworth is actually working. In particular, the Body Orifice Security Scanner (BOSS) chair, which is supposed to detect illicit objects concealed inside bodies, has never worked. Even the walk-through metal detector isn’t currently switched on. With fewer security officers on duty, it’s not hard to see why trafficking contraband into our prisons has never been easier or less risky.

Earlier this month, the appropriately named Gary Copson – an ex-Metropolitan Police commander – wrote a piece for The Guardian about the prospects of prison reform being advocated by Messrs Cameron and Gove (see here). Although his views on this subject are of interest, what really caught my eye was the fact that his previous role was as an advisor to HMPS from 2001-2005. He should know what he is writing about. 

Right down in the penultimate paragraph of Mr Copson’s article was the damning passage that should have had the rest of the national media scrambling for further interviews:

Drugs and mobile phones are illegal in prisons. Both are rife. Organised crime makes huge profits from supplying them into a hyper-inflated closed market. They get in principally through corruption. Prison officers are vulnerable to extreme intimidation and lack the support networks available to police when they are targeted by organised criminals.

POA: part of problem or solution?
He also observed that the powers that be were ‘afraid of discussing corruption’ with the Prisons Officers Association (POA), even though he himself had found the POA both ‘more enlightened and pragmatic’ about the issue. I found it genuinely amazing that comments of this kind, made by a former senior police officer with professional experience of prison security issues, have attracted so little attention, even in The Guardian.
Corruption among prison staff (and contractors with access) really does seem to be the elephant in the room that almost everyone is desperately trying to avoid mentioning. True, HMPS staff morale is already very low, but betrayal by bent colleagues who are cashing in by undermining security and safety in our prisons should be something that is of genuine concern to those officers and governors who aren’t corrupted. Remaining in denial of the problem merely serves to perpetuate a climate in which corruption can thrive unchallenged.

As Nick Hardwick, the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, told me during a recent interview (see here), all too often corruption in secure establishments isn’t just a case of one rotten apple, but of what he described as ‘rotten orchards’. This involves small clusters of staff who are corrupt, but surrounded by larger groups of colleagues who are also compromised and therefore feel unable or unwilling to challenge unprofessional or illegal conduct.

SIM cards: tiny, but a big security risk
That criminal activities, including smuggling of drugs and mobile phones or SIM cards, do occur among a significant minority of those who work in the prison system is clear. Staff are regularly dismissed or suspended, while there are also periodic prosecutions. Penalties can be stiff because of the breach of trust involved, as one prison officer discovered back in 2009 when he was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in smuggling Class A drugs into HMP Channings Wood, Devon.  

In January 2015, Mike Spurr, the chief of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) admitted to Channel 4 News that during 2014 alone, over 100 members of prison staff and authorised personnel had been dismissed or excluded from prisons, while 34 had been successfully prosecuted and convicted of criminal offences, primarily trafficking contraband such as drugs and mobile phones into establishments (see interview here). Of course, these are only the individuals who have been apprehended in the act and it seems reasonable to conclude that this is merely the tip of a much larger iceberg of corruption and misconduct.

Yet, despite the hard evidence, this remains a largely taboo subject. It is the elephant in the room that everyone seems to know is there, whilst making strenuous efforts to avoid mentioning. Now that even the politicians have started to acknowledge the reality of the crisis in our dysfunctional prisons, perhaps the key role being played by the ‘cons with keys’ should be the next issue that is tackled. 

It only takes one bent staff member to endanger safety and lives in any establishment, but when there are clusters – ‘rotten orchards’ – of compromised colleagues who aid and abet the cover-ups, a corrupted environment can develop in which almost anything is possible, from smuggling contraband to falsifying official documents, and from sexual misbehaviour to vicious assaults on prisoners. I know from my own experience that there are many decent staff working in our prisons. Now is the time for them to start putting their own house in order by adopting a zero-tolerance approach to corruption by colleagues and prisoners.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Oh Lordy, it’s the Fat Lags!

As an ex-prisoner who piled on the pounds while I was inside, I thought I should probably write a post about the obesity epidemic in our prisons. Despite the pun in my title, it’s actually no laughing matter. In fact, it is a ticking health time bomb that the over-stretched NHS is going to have to deal with for decades to come.

Chips with everything?
The problem is evident on almost every prison wing. As the prison population is ageing, so its collective waistline seems to be expanding. Jail jogging bottoms – which don’t flatter the fuller male figure at the best of times – can be seen stretched over expanded paunches and muffin-tops are everywhere to be seen, even on younger lads.

One aspect of the internal crisis caused by Chris Grayling’s ludicrous revision to Prison Service Instruction 30/2013, which forced all new arrivals in our prisons into prison-issue clothing for weeks or even months, was the sheer shortage of appropriate kit in the stores. For years, many male prisoners had worn (and paid for) their own clothes. As a result, the demand for a wide range of sizes in prison joggers, boxer shorts, t-shirts and sweatshirts had been manageable.

A tight fit, there mate...
From September 2013, however, all new prisoners, including those previously held on remand but now convicted, suddenly found themselves required to wear only prison-issue. In many prisons, the results were evident. Those on Entry Level or Basic were often issued with clothing that really didn’t fit in any meaningful way, shape or form. Extra extra large blokes struggled with medium-size boxers and joggers that left massive bellies overhanging and even bare flesh exposed. Dressing men like clowns from a third-rate circus is hardly calculated to soften the ‘shock and awe’ of the early days in custody.

Since my late teens, I’ve always had a tendency to put on weight. I’ve never smoked and I don’t drink alcohol, but food is definitely a guilty pleasure. In order to keep my weight stable, I’ve always needed to be careful about not eating too many carbs or fats and to hit the gym several times a week, which I did before I got sent down.

At 6ft 1” in height, I went into prison a reasonably trim 12.5 stone (175 lbs/79 kg) with a healthy BMI. I came out a few years later at around 16 stone (224 lbs/101 kg). On average I think I gained over 16 lbs per year.

Potential links between obesity and imprisonment are already the subject of research. In 2012, the medical journal, The Lancet, reviewed a study undertaken by the University of Oxford which examined diet, physical activity and obesity in prison populations. Their findings were that ‘in most cases, male prisoners are less likely to be obese than men in the general population’. A further research project was approved by the NHS in September 2013 (Study into the incidence, prevalence and causes of obesity in two prison establishments in the UK).

Of course, this isn’t just a problem in British prisons. There is a body of international research that points to a propensity among inmates to gain unhealthy weight while incarcerated.

Prison pizza... death on a plate?
Although prison food is supposed to be nutritious, there is often far too many carbs, fat, salt and stodge on the menu. Chips, cheap pizzas, white baguette rolls, greasy lasagnas topped with ‘cheese analogue’ (processed cheese substitute), crisps, biscuits, cake, white bread… In short, a dietician’s worst nightmare. Of course, prison budget cuts also play a part, since the daily allowance for the provision of three meals a day is around £1.85 per prisoner.

However, the spreading waistlines are also closely linked to the significant amount of junk food that prisoners – if they have money in their prison accounts – are able to purchase from the DHL-run canteen. Of course, this includes more crisps, a range of cheap biscuits, heavily sweetened fruit juices, bags of white sugar, chocolates, jam, long-life cake and various other types of processed or preserved foodstuffs. Not to mention cheap, sugary fizzy drinks in cans or plastic bottles.

What makes all this junk food into a highly toxic threat to health is the sheer lack of activity for many prisoners. In some establishments, a significant proportion of inmates are locked behind their cell doors for 22 or even 23 hours each day as the outgoing Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, has highlighted in his reports. Some men emerge only to take an occasional shower, to make a quick phone call or to queue to collect a tray of carb-rich food at mealtimes.

Of course, not all prisoners turn into tubs of lard. A fair proportion of prisoners do manage to keep themselves in reasonable shape, even in their cells, but that does require a degree of motivation and for many, boredom and depression soon extinguish any enthusiasm for keeping fit. One ex-prisoner who did manage it (and who blogs about his experiences on YouTube) is Jack Hill. You can find his video blogs and exercise routines here.

Exercising in a tiny cell: a challenge
Given the level of overcrowding across our prison estate, it can also be difficult for two (or even three) adult men who are locked in a tiny cell the size of an average bathroom to exercise. There simply isn’t room for two people to do press-ups or anything else unless one sits or lies down on his bunk.

I’ve just received a letter from a friend of mine who is a qualified personal trainer and who was a sportsman of some distinction before he ended up inside owing to a series of criminal acts of crass stupidity. He is currently residing in one of England’s worst Cat-B local jails and although he has been there since November, he hasn’t been allocated one single gym session. In fact, in nearly three months he hasn’t even had the compulsory gym induction course.

He and his cellmate – who also has an interest in keeping fit – take it in turns to use the tiny area of floor to do a programme of exercises three times a day. However, the fact that they are only getting two opportunities per week to shower, get little in the way of clean prison clothing during the weekly kit-change and the lack of opening windows in the cell mean that the atmosphere is getting pretty grim. The best they can do is a daily strip wash at the sink. Imagine living 23 hours per day in a stinking gym changing-room complete with a leaking, unscreened toilet and no cleaning products. I think you’ll get the general idea.

When the weather isn’t too bad they do get 30 minutes of exercise a day on a small enclosed yard, but as my mate has discovered, running or jogging is strictly prohibited on ‘health and safety’ grounds. Apparently, according to legend, a running prisoner once tripped up and fractured an elbow on the asphalt so anything more vigorous than a brisk walk is now banned.

Prison gym - standing empty & unused
Although every prison does have a gym, actually getting access to it depends entirely on having sufficient staff available to escort groups of prisoners from their wing or houseblock to the gymnasium. At present, some establishments are so shortstaffed that the once a week gym sessions are cancelled more often than not. The same prison hasn’t managed to organise one single visit to the library either since my correspondent hit the wing in November, so it isn’t just the gym that is standing empty and unused.

I have written previously about the crazy rules for gym access imposed nationally by Chris Grayling (link here). In a bid to curry favour with the Daily Mail and its sorry bunch of punishment freaks and armchair sadists, Calamity Chris decided that allowing inmates access to ageing and under-equipped prison gyms should be strictly rationed. These days, it’s rare to get more than one or two sessions timetabled each week and, even then, the moment there is an alarm on another wing or a few staff less than planned, gym sessions are cancelled.

This uncertainty over daily regime leads to rising levels of frustration which can, and do, spill over into fights and other types of violence. It is well-documented that exercise has a wide range of benefits for both mental and physical health, including reducing tensions and an increased sense of well-being. At a time when so many of our dysfunctional and understaffed prisons are teetering on the brink of violent disorder or worse, restricting gym sessions was probably one of the more idiotic of many daft and deeply damaging penal policies that Mr Grayling introduced during his term in office.

A strenuous workout helps
If I were Michael Gove, I’d look at getting as many prisoners into as many gym sessions as possible and to hell with what the Daily Mail writes about it. Inmates who have just enjoyed a strenuous workout in the gym, followed by a hot shower, will return to their wing ready for a meal, bang-up and a quiet evening of TV or sleep. They are much less likely to get into confrontations with officers or other cons.

Believe me, I’ve seen this at first-hand in six different jails and it works. Just ask yourself why boarding schools include so much sport and PE in the weekly timetable!

The alternative is to try to keep the lid on an increasingly tense and potentially violent population, many of whom have extremely poor anger management skills, using a depleted number of frontline staff. In my opinion, money spent on getting prisoners into gyms is never wasted, particularly when you consider the enormous cost of rebuilding trashed wings after a riot.

Even when tensions don’t erupt into violence, prisoners find other outlets for their frustrations and boredom. These include the use of drugs (legal and illegal), as well as snacking on junk food – which many health and nutrition professionals also identify as an addiction with psychological roots. The quick carb hit lifts the spirits, at least momentarily.

Prison canteen chocolate: Devil's fodder
The term ‘comfort eating’ was probably coined to describe what happens in prison cells up and down the country. People often turn to food when they are bored or feeling down. For those lucky enough to have faster metabolisms perhaps the evidence isn’t so visible in the short-term, but when combined with a lack of opportunities for vigorous exercise or work, the results can be toxic.

An ageing prison population is also more susceptible to a wide range of weight and obesity-related health risks, including type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer. Boredom and a lack of purposeful activity in prisons can indeed prove potentially lethal, or at least disabling.

I think the general public would be surprised, and perhaps shocked, to see the sheer numbers of overweight and obese prisoners of all ages dragging themselves around the landings, puffing as they climb the staircases and slowly killing themselves by gorging on crisps and chocolate bought at extortionate prices from the canteen. I’m not even going to mention smoking here beyond noting that an estimated 80 percent of adult prisoners also have a tobacco habit at present.

If you can pinch more than 6 inches...
Almost all of these prisoners will be released back in the community at some point. Many of them will come out with a range of health complaints or serious illnesses that could condemn them to a lifetime of requiring medical care or prescribed medication. A number will be deemed unfit for work and will require varying degrees of care for the rest of their lives.

Although some prisons do offer weight management clinics and ‘special diets’ can be prescribed by doctors, in my experience the take-up is often extremely limited. Most medical diets involve tiny portions of low-quality salad and fruit that will leave you feeling hungry, so they aren’t particularly popular. In one establishment they simply consisted of a handful of wilted salad served in exactly the same stale, white bread baguette as all the other meal options at lunchtime. I tried one, once. Most of it ended up in the bin.

Perhaps HM Inspectorate of Prisons should add a new category to its so-called ‘healthy prison tests’… an assessment of the physical and mental health of prisoners. Eating disorders are complex conditions to manage. However, there is plenty of scope for preventative measures (such as positively encouraging exercise and gym use), as well better education, healthier diets and a more appropriate range of food on offer from the canteen suppliers.

However, if we continue to lock two or more men in tiny cells for 22 or 23 hours a day for months or years on end, offer them high carb, high fat diets and deny them opportunities for regular, vigorous exercise, while at the same time providing canteen sheets packed with the most unhealthy snacks and junk foods imaginable, then as taxpayers, we’ll all be picking up the damages tab for years to come. Will anything change for the better? Sadly, I doubt it.