‘If you decide to cut staff, people die’: how Nottingham prison descended into chaos

When Denise Ireson’s neighbour heard her son was going to prison, he issued a warning: just pray Ben isn’t sent to Nottingham. The neighbour’s relative worked in prisons, and he knew HMP Nottingham had a reputation for drugs, violence and suicide. This wasn’t exactly classified information. Since 2014, a series of alarming headlines had emerged. A prisoner bit off and, it’s believed, swallowed an officer’s right earlobe. An 80-year-old prisoner was throttled to death with a sheet while watching snooker in his cell. Another man was asphyxiated on his second day in the prison. His cellmate stabbed him with plastic cutlery, strangled him with a ligature made from shoelaces and put a plastic bag over his head. According to Steven Ramsell, a local criminal defence lawyer, conditions became so bad that some of his clients refused to board the bus that took them to the prison. “Nobody wanted to be in a prison,” Ramsell said. But more than anything, “nobody wanted to be in Nottingham prison”.

On 16 October 2018, Ben Ireson – a slender 31-year-old with a history of anxiety – arrived at Nottingham to await sentencing for a domestic violence charge. Allocated to the B wing, he called his mother six or seven times a day from the phone in his cell. On 22 October, Ben informed a staff member that he was under threat from other prisoners and that his cell had been robbed three times – teabags, biscuits and his crucifix were missing. That evening, he told his mother he’d attempted suicide and that he intended to try again. Denise yelled at him to hold out. At the time, she was caring for her grandson who had brain cancer. She spent the evenings alone in her flat worrying that Ben wouldn’t survive, either.

In the early hours of 13 December, an officer passed Ben’s cell and noticed that the observation hatch was covered with toilet roll. Peering through a crack, he saw Ben hanging from his wardrobe. The officer shouted to his colleague and called Code Blue on his radio, triggering the control room to call an ambulance. Staff cut Ben down and started CPR. Minutes later, when a nurse arrived, she advised them to stop: rigor mortis had already set in. Ben was pronounced dead at 6am. His was the 12th suicide at Nottingham in 18 months.

Just over a year later, an inquest revealed the catalogue of failings preceding Ben’s death. On arrival at the prison, Ben had told staff he had attempted suicide after a previous breakup. He should have been assessed by the mental health team within five days. When he was finally seen, a month later, it was by a trainee who hadn’t been given any information about him. When Ben complained that his belongings were being stolen, that he felt threatened and wanted to kill himself, he was placed on a suicide and self-harm prevention plan. Two days later, this monitoring stopped. Staff believed his condition had improved. At the inquest, Nottingham’s then governor, Phil Novis, described the state of the prison when he arrived in July 2018, five months before Ben’s death. “It was the worst prison I have ever been to. It was absolute chaos. There were no systems in place. There was just nothing. It was just … it was horrendous.”

At the start of 2018, Nottingham had become the first prison in Britain to be issued with an urgent notification, a new form of special measures reserved for the most dangerous institutions. “Inspection findings at HMP Nottingham tell a story of dramatic decline since 2010,” wrote Peter Clarke, then chief inspector of prisons. The report that accompanied the urgent notification – which followed poor inspection reports win 2015 and 2016 – described Nottingham as “a dangerous, disrespectful, drug-ridden jail” and raised a litany of concerns. Staff were being assaulted at twice the rate of their counterparts in other prisons. Prisoners were increasingly turning to self-harm. Eight men had taken their own lives since the last inspection.

How did Nottingham get so bad? Over the past year, I have interviewed more than 60 people – prisoners, prison staff, lawyers, academics, officials and families – to piece together how the prison unravelled. (The Ministry of Justice did not grant me permission to visit HMP Nottingham and rejected multiple requests to interview former governors and the prison chaplaincy team.) These interviews, alongside documents, inspection reports and inquest recordings, paint a vivid picture of Nottingham’s disintegration – at one inquest, an officer likened the prison to a war zone.

But the story of Nottingham is not one of individual crisis; it is a particularly shocking symbol of a nationwide crisis. Between 2009 and 2019, deaths in custody in English and Welsh prisons increased by 86%, while serious assaults on staff increased by 228%. “This decline was due to policy and political decisions, not suddenly a whole load of prison staff and prison governors decided they were going to down tools and do a bad job,” Nick Hardwick, chief inspector of prisons from 2010 to 2016, told me. “It’s really important to understand that in prisons – as in other public services – this is a systemic issue.”

As a category B local men’s prison, HMP Nottingham houses all sorts of prisoners: men waiting to be sentenced; men serving short sentences for minor crimes; men who have committed serious crimes who are waiting to be transferred to other prisons. A shoplifter might be held alongside a convicted murderer. According to the criminologist Philippa Tomczak, the constant turnover in local prisons feeds instability. One former Nottingham officer told me that local prison is the most dangerous place to work, because of the unknown. Drawn from an urban region with high levels of homelessness, drug use and organised crime, this revolving population is confined within around a dozen modern red-and-white blocks, the largest of which looks like a vast warehouse.

There were many reasons why things went so wrong at Nottingham, but staff and prisoners seem to agree on two major problems: first, there were too many prisoners, and second, there were not enough experienced officers. By January 2018, when Nottingham was issued its urgent notification, it had the capacity to house 718 men without being classed as overcrowded, but was holding almost 1,000. Across England and Wales, this kind of overcrowding was becoming the norm. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have devolved prison systems and so publish their own statistics.)

England and Wales not only locks up a greater percentage of its population than anywhere else in western Europe, but also locks them up for longer. There are more prisoners serving life sentences in England and Wales than in Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland combined. England and Wales also impose harsh release conditions: when former prisoners break them, they return to custody. Roughly half of released prisoners are reconvicted within a year.

It wasn’t always this way. In the mid-90s, the prison population stood at roughly 40,000. But over the next few years, as Labour and the Conservatives competed to be seen as tough on crime, these numbers climbed steeply. Under New Labour, the prison population – which is disproportionately composed of men, minorities and people living with addiction and mental illness – reached 80,000 for the first time. In 2003, Martin Narey, director of the Prison Service, resigned in protest. “We could be turning people’s lives around,” he later said. “As long as numbers are continually rising, that’s not going to be possible.”

Rising numbers were, for a period, matched by rising investment. Between 2003 and 2008, prison expenditure in England and Wales increased by nearly 40% in real terms. “That investment reaped benefits,” says Andrea Albutt, head of the Prison Governors Association. “Prisons were performing as you would want prisons to perform. They were decent.” In 2008, an inspection report for Nottingham noted that while the prison was struggling with the growing number of prisoners, it was also “an effective local prison able to rise to many of the challenges it faced”.

Then the financial crisis struck, and the seeds of the present crisis were sown. In 2008, Jack Straw, the justice secretary, initiated a policy called benchmarking, which aimed to run prisons in the most cost-efficient way possible. The head of the Prison Service, Phil Wheatley, was asked to identify the best examples of cost-savings in individual prisons across the country, and then standardise these across every prison in England and Wales. If prisons tended to use five staff members to process 60 new prisoners, say, but Wheatley found a prison that did so with just three staff members, then he would investigate how they did it, and if it seemed effective and replicable, it would become the “benchmark” against which other prisons would be judged. Benchmarking enforced a kind of “levelling down” across prisons, making the bare minimum mandatory. Anything beyond this was considered to be wasteful, and was cut.

Identifying these benchmarks was a slow process, and in 2010, when the coalition government entered Downing Street and implemented austerity, it was still in its infancy. Rather than accelerating the policy, the new justice secretary Kenneth Clarke – who declared himself “amazed” that the prison population had doubled since he was home secretary in the early 90s – pledged to save money through privatisation and by reducing the number of prisoners. But in 2012, Clarke was replaced by Chris Grayling, who abandoned the pledge to reduce the prison population. Instead, he introduced the prison unit cost programme, an expansion of benchmarking. (This new policy initially garnered the support of the Prison Officers Association, the national union, because it replaced the planned privatisation.)

One of the things that makes prisons expensive to run is paying staff to run them. Grayling calculated that the quickest way to save a lot of money would be to employ fewer people and pay them less. To meet this goal, in 2013, the Ministry of Justice implemented a voluntary redundancy scheme. Thousands of long-serving officers on higher salaries left, saving money but leaving a void of experience in their wake. “You can’t get back experience,” said the former Nottingham officer.

Meanwhile, other cuts were starting to be felt. “We just couldn’t run prisons any more like we had done,” Andrea Albutt told me. By about 2013, she said that it had even become hard to procure socks and underwear for prisoners. As conditions deteriorated and staff found themselves stretched increasingly thin, a vicious cycle began where more and more officers signed off sick or resigned, meaning that some prisons were operating even below their benchmarked levels of staff.

During its time in office, the coalition government would cut prison budgets by 20%, and the number of prison staff would fall by almost 30%. “[Grayling] delivered on what David Cameron had asked him to do. But it’s at a considerable cost,” Wheatley told me. “Prisoners and staff are still paying.”

By September 2013, Nottingham had lost 25% of its staff. Diane Ward was one of the officers who stayed. Ward – who has tawny hair, pale blue eyes and a robust commitment to straight-talking – had been in the Prison Service for three decades and was proud of her jailcraft. She knew that good officering requires a certain alchemy. Locks, bars, bolts, cameras and keys are crucial, but so are relationships. Because officers are outnumbered, they rely on the cooperation of those they lock up. This requires give and take. An officer is consistent and fair; they might turn a blind eye to certain transgressions. A prisoner shares snippets of information; they help keep order.

Ward joined Nottingham in 1997 and, until benchmarking started to affect the prison in 2013, she felt she could do her job properly. If she was working mornings, her alarm would ring, she’d fasten her hair, button her white shirt and lace up her Doc Marten boots. Passing through the prison’s gates, she would collect her keys. Then she’d head to the wing, unlocking and locking heavy metal gates along the way. Inside, it smelt faintly of bodies, an absence of fresh air, damp mops that hadn’t been wrung out properly.

Safe prisons run on routine. When the days were on track, Ward and her colleagues would unlock cells at 8am and prisoners would filter towards classes or work. (Working as painters and cleaners, serving meals and checking in new arrivals, prisoners can earn a weekly salary of about £12. They also earn revenue for the prison. If you’ve ever eaten airline food, your cutlery might have been packed by prisoners.) After work, during a leisure period known as “association”, prisoners could play pool, go to the gym, shower. Then they were locked in their cells until the morning. When this routine ran smoothly, the prison was quiet. Ward once worked a set of nights and the only alarm that rang was the fire alarm when she burned a slice of toast.

As staff numbers dwindled, these moments of calm disappeared. Formerly, officers were assigned to a wing for long stretches of time, so they could form relationships with prisoners, and pick up on when trouble was brewing. Now they became troubleshooters, deployed to multiple wings in a day. According to Albutt, governors were holding daily meetings to decide how to move staff around wings to plug gaps. “We used to call them swap shops,” she told me.

This constant churn didn’t just strain relations between staff and prisoners, it eroded solidarity among staff. Ward remembers a time when she found a prisoner who had a TV in his cell, which he wasn’t permitted. She ended up in a tug of war with him, yelling for help. Her colleagues on the landing didn’t appear. “I reported the two officers. Nothing happened,” Ward told me.

By 2014, staff shortages meant that prisoners’ activities were often cancelled. They could spend 21 hours a day in grim cells with graffitied walls and lidless toilets that were barely screened by stained, ragged curtains. Locked up for longer, prisoners became frustrated and more violent. It was around this time that Mark, a prison officer who had worked at Nottingham for more than a decade, started to feel unsafe. He recalled an incident in which a prisoner watered down a bowl of excrement until it formed a soup and then emptied it over a nurse’s head. Staff were being “potted” like this regularly, he said.

Mark was trained as a hostage negotiator, talking down men who barricaded themselves and other prisoners inside cells, showers and laundry rooms. These situations, he said, started to happen on a weekly basis. The prison regularly had to call on the support of a national riot squad, who are armed with shields and fireproof uniforms. The “nationals” were there so regularly, Mark said, that officers were on first-name terms with them. In 2010, the National Tactical Response group was called out to prisons across the country 18 times. During 2014, they were called 223 times. In April 2014, Steve Gillan, secretary general of the prison officers’ union, told the BBC that Nottingham was “a powder keg prison”.

As conditions deteriorated, Diane Ward began regularly filing security information reports (SIRs). She submitted roughly 100 between 2013 and 2015, lodging concerns about drugs and safety, as well as suspicions about potentially corrupt colleagues. Despite her persistence, the complaints seemed to disappear inside the prison intranet. Sometimes, when Ward was particularly irate, she would fire off emails to management:

According to Albutt, similar scenes were playing out across the country. Austerity had not only reduced the number of officers, but administrative staff, too. Security reports would pile up, unread.

At the end of 2014, Ward booked a holiday to Australia. Before leaving, she sent emails to her manager outlining her concerns. “If the necessary changes aren’t made, I might just as well sit in my car, in the car park, for the good I do,” she wrote. “I have had enough of this awful place.”

The following year, Ward was accused of assaulting two prisoners. She admits to the first assault, saying that she pushed a man as she was trying to get him to go and have dinner. But she maintains that the second accusation was a stitch-up, planned between a prisoner and an officer. After being suspended for 143 days, Ward returned to work. She managed two shifts before being signed off for six months due to stress. She was later dismissed for being unable to do her job owing to ill health, so Ward took the prison to an employment tribunal. She claimed that the real reason for her dismissal were her criticisms of the way the prison was run. “I think they wanted to get rid of me to silence me,” she said in her witness statement.

Ward lost her case, but the judge upheld her concerns about safety in the prison. In the years that followed her suspension, the situation at Nottingham continued to decline at a terrifying rate.

In 2015, a young man named Maurice McKenzie was recalled to Nottingham for breaking the conditions of his release. It had been three years since he was last inside, and he could see that the prison had changed. Prisoners were dominating the wings and officers didn’t seem to be able to stop them: “They lost control: fact,” he told me. There seemed to be more prisoners with severe mental illness. For two weeks, the man in the cell next door to him screamed throughout the night. “He don’t need prison. He can’t be locked up in a cell,” McKenzie told me.

Mental health is a grave problem in prisons across the country, but in Nottingham the problem may have been exacerbated by the fact that, at the time, patients from the nearby Rampton high-security psychiatric hospital were being automatically transferred to the prison if they had finished their treatment programmes but were deemed unfit for release into the community. Inspection reports in 2014 and 2015 flagged this as a major problem that the prison was not equipped to handle. (This policy of automatic transfer to Nottingham was subsequently amended.)

Around the time McKenzie returned to Nottingham, the justice select committee finished a year-long inquiry into the effects of “efficiency savings” in prisons, which made the link between funding cuts and a rise in prison deaths. In 2016, there were 119 suicides in English and Welsh prisons – twice as many as in 2012. The following year, self-harm incidents reached record numbers. That year, Frances Crook, then head of the Howard League for Prison Reform, gave evidence to parliament. “If you decide to cut staff, there are consequences; people die as a consequence,” she said. “Those are decisions that are made by politicians.”

In November 2016, in an effort to control the chaos its policies had unleashed, the government announced a recruitment drive to hire 2,500 officers. Having been stripped of experienced officers, prisons were now being filled with new recruits who were given as little as eight weeks training. (In Norway, officers are trained for two years.) At Nottingham, new officers were being sent into a particularly violent environment. A report published in February 2016 recorded 299 assaults on staff and prisoners in the previous six months, many of which involved weapons. One man who worked at Nottingham during this period recalled seeing a female member of staff being held down by her ponytail and kicked in the face. “If you have a jail that is at breaking point, don’t send inexperienced officers into that jail,” said former Nottingham prisoner Andrew Sedgwick.

There hasn’t been much research into the impacts of officering – prison officers sometimes refer to themselves as the forgotten service – but we do know that they suffer high levels of alcoholism, divorce and stress. Figures obtained by the BBC show that, in 2019, 1,000 prison officers in England and Wales were signed off due to stress. “My biggest regret in my life is going to work in the Prison Service,” says Mark, describing the toll taken by decades in the job. “It lives with you. I don’t know how many dead bodies I’ve seen in prison.”

Nottingham’s staff faced violence, but some abused their power. In April 2016, an officer assaulted a Black prisoner in his cell. In a WhatsApp group, the officer and two colleagues shared racist messages and agreed to lie to the prison investigation. One officer was later found guilty of common assault and all three were sentenced for misconduct in a public office. Eight months later, it emerged that another group of Nottingham staff had deliberately antagonised Black and Asian prisoners until they needed to be restrained, placed bets on who would win fights between officers and prisoners, and logged scores in a WhatsApp group.

These examples are extreme, but they reflect the evidence that those from ethnic minority backgrounds are both overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and have a worse time inside prison. It is unclear if any progress has been made since the 2017 Lammy Review into the justice system’s treatment of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals, which made 35 recommendations for reform. Earlier this year, in a new survey of BAME women prisoners, 40% of respondents had experienced discrimination, including racist abuse and prejudice from prison staff.

As security was deteriorating, a new drug was tearing through British prisons. From around 2014, the synthetic cannabinoid spice, also known as mamba, was being smuggled in through visits, in the post, or with corrupt officers. In one case at Nottingham, the drug was sprayed on to a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was then torn up and sold for about £50 a strip.

Prisoners pay for drugs using bank transfers, known as “send outs”, or they pay in kind, using their canteen – a delivery of small items such as shampoo and deodorant that arrives on a Friday. Dealers provide the spice upfront and give the buyer a list of what they want; if they are not provided on time, the items on the list might be doubled. At Nottingham, a former officer told me, canteen day became known as “Black Eye Friday” because so many prisoners would get beaten up for failing to pay their debts.

Spice is popular in prisons because it’s hard to detect in drug testing. Its effects, though, are easy to spot. Sometimes, users slump into a state of oblivion, which helps melt away the hours in a cell. On other occasions, users start to behave violently or erratically. One prisoner, who served multiple sentences in Nottingham between 2010 and 2018, told me that he once saw a prisoner who was high on mamba trying to slice off his own penis. So many ambulances were called to the prison to treat drug-related episodes that they became known as Mambulances.

The combination of this rampant new drug and severe funding cuts could be lethal. At lunchtime on 27 September 2017, a Nottingham prisoner called Anthony Solomon rolled a spice cigarette from a page ripped out of the Bible. After smoking it, Solomon dropped to his knees and started vomiting and defecating. His cellmate rang the emergency cell bell.

Out on the wing, there was one officer for 220 men. New to the job, the officer was familiar with the effects of mamba, having previously been hospitalised after inhaling fumes while unlocking a cell. Alone on the lunch shift, the officer had to prioritise. He could begin the checks intended to prevent suicide and self-harm. Or he could start answering the cell bells, which prisoners rang constantly, often for minor reasons. He chose the former. About 40 minutes later, when another officer finally entered Solomon’s cell, he found him lying face-down in a pool of vomit. Shortly after, he was declared dead.

Amid this darkness, some prisoners still found light. One day, Ian McCluskey, a substance misuse recovery worker, was walking through the prison when he was intercepted by a prisoner called Garry Kinton, who asked for help getting sober.

When Kinton arrived at Nottingham in autumn 2017, around the time Solomon died, it was at least his 10th time in prison. He was 6ft 3in, skeletally thin and had yellow and black stumps for teeth. At night, he’d lie in his bunk – his angular spine jutting through the mattress, rubbing against the wooden slats – and think about his children, who had been put into care.

Kinton knew Nottingham’s reputation, and he was scared. In the four weeks after Solomon’s death, four prisoners had killed themselves. “I’d been in prison a lot of times. I hadn’t heard of that many deaths in such a short space of time,” Kinton told me. “It unnerved me.”

Kinton was on the “detox” wing, and drugs were everywhere. Prisoners queued to collect their subutex pills, a replacement for heroin, from the dispensary. They then often hid the pills under their tongues, sliced them into eight, and sold each slice for a tenner. Kinton hadn’t had a negative drugs test in 24 years, and assumed this would be his life. But then McCluskey agreed to help him.

McCluskey told me that he wanted to resist the apathy that naturally sets in after having seen so many prisoners try and fail to get sober. And so, even though Kinton wasn’t officially on his caseload, McCluskey decided to offer him emotional support and help secure him a spot in rehab for when he was released. A quarter of Nottingham’s prisoners are released without a fixed address, which is one of many overlapping factors that can lead to relapsing. “I am told, anecdotally, that if you have a drug problem then it takes about two hours for your drug dealer to get in touch with you,” says Graham Bowpitt, a professor in social policy at Nottingham Trent university.

With McCluskey’s support, Kinton queued for his last dose of methadone on 20 November 2017. He walked away from the dispensary and didn’t go back. “Encouragement is a massive thing,” Kinton told me. “A massive thing.” Just a few months earlier, he says he had no hope whatsoever. McCluskey helped change that. At the end of 2017, Kinton was released and stayed in the Carpenters Arms, a recovery centre that supports addicts. He is now a manager there, helping other people fight addiction.

Prison inspectors usually show up unannounced. But given that Nottingham’s previous two inspections had been so bad, the inspectorate gave advance warning that it would be arriving in January 2018. It made little difference. The subsequent report noted that just 12 of the 48 recommendations made in the last inspection had been fully implemented. Use of force had risen considerably, and 67% of surveyed prisoners said they felt unsafe. Although staff efforts were praised, inspectors noted that roughly half of staff based on the wings were in their first year of service, and many appeared passive and unconfident.

It was at this point that Nottingham was issued its urgent notification, and the prison’s failings became national news. Yet some argue that by focusing attention on individual failing prisons, urgent notifications can distract from just how widespread the rot has become. Nick Hardwick, the former prison inspector, told me that around 2013, the inspectorate had discussed whether they ought to actually lower standards because it was becoming impossible for prisons to meet them. They decided against this, because doing so would make it look as though everything was fine. “And it wasn’t.”

The systemic reasons for Nottingham’s decline are clear. But what role did the most senior individuals at the prison play in Nottingham’s continual decline? Mark, the former officer, certainly felt unsupported. “Senior management are like rocking horse droppings. You never see them,” he said. Phil Wheatley agrees that governors in prisons nationwide are more remote than they once were. But, he said, after benchmarking, “Governors were left with an impossible job and very often got blamed when it went wrong.” (Wheatley’s son, Tom Wheatley, was governor at Nottingham between 2016 and 2018 and is now governor of HMP Wakefield. The Ministry of Justice rejected my request to interview him.)

During its worst years, Nottingham’s governors didn’t remain in post for long. A 2016 inspection noted that the prison had had five governors in four years. Wheatley points out that this same problem was playing out in Westminster, too. In the past 10 years, there have been eight different secretaries of state for justice. Of course, Hardwick says, there were some examples of poor leadership at prisons like Nottingham. “But for the most part the buck had to stop at the door of the Ministry of Justice,” he told me.

When an urgent notification is issued, the Ministry of Justice is obliged to respond within 28 days, outlining an immediate action plan. As part of Nottingham’s short-term plan, pledges were made to remove young offenders from the prison and review use-of-force procedures. As part of a longer-term plan, then prisons minister Rory Stewart selected Nottingham to be part of a project that funnelled a total of £10m into 10 of the UK’s worst prisons, to fund new security measures, repairs and staff training. The resources were much needed. In September 2018, shortly after HMP Bedford became the fourth prison to be issued with an urgent notification, thousands of officers across the country staged a mass walkout. “We can’t just keep turning a blind eye to the broken limbs, the smashed eye sockets and broken jaws of our members,” Steve Gillan, general secretary of the prison officers’ union, told Sky News.

A year after Stewart’s project was launched, assaults had fallen in seven of the prisons. But at Nottingham they’d actually risen. In April 2019, a 23-year-old officer required 17 stitches after his throat was slit by a prison-issue razor. (According to Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, the rise in assaults at Nottingham might simply be due to an improvement in recording incidents, rather than an actual rise in violence.)

However, by the beginning of 2020, the situation at Nottingham looked slightly more hopeful. Although levels of self-harm and mental illness among prisoners remained high, there were also improvements. Drugs were being intercepted more often, prisoners could submit complaints via the electronic kiosks that had been installed on the landings, and the population had been reduced from a high of 1,074 to 798. Some new cultural projects had been introduced. Benje Howard, known as Kingdom Rapper, was brought in to teach prisoners how to rap. More than 200 men crowded into the gym to see him perform. “The atmosphere when I walked in was so jovial and electric,” Howard recalled.

“There is still a huge amount to do, but it would be wrong not to recognise the impressive progress that has been made,” concluded a report conducted in early 2020, before the pandemic. “When a previously poorly performing prison improves, I have seen how it is possible for a new and optimistic culture, offering real care for prisoners and a better chance for them to rehabilitate, can take hold.”

Two years on, prisoners in England and Wales are still living with some of the restrictions that were implemented at the beginning of the pandemic; restrictions that saw many prisoners across the country confined to their cells for more than 22 hours a day. Once prisoners were locked down, rates of violence dropped. Now some staff are pushing to maintain the restricted regime indefinitely. “We have learned from Covid that lockdown is not a bad thing. It has returned control to the prison staff,” Mark Fairhurst, the chair of the prison officers’ union told the Times in July 2020. “Believe it or not, prisoners are telling us they like this regime. It is stable, they are not getting bullied by other prisoners.” Of course, if this is true, it raises deeper questions about why prisoners feel safer being locked inside their cells than engaging in some of the limited freedoms – education, work, exercise, visits – that should support their mental health and rehabilitation.

What is the situation like today at Nottingham? In a statement for this article, a Prison Service spokesperson said: “We have worked hard to improve HMP Nottingham by boosting staffing levels and installing a new X-ray body scanner to bolster security. Recent inspections show this is working, with a rapid fall in the amount of drugs entering the establishment and a reduction in violence.” The spokesperson also said that Nottingham has increased the number of specialist healthcare staff to support prisoners with mental health needs.

Yet worrying reports of violence and dire conditions continue to emerge from the prison. In July 2021, after an officer broke a prisoner’s arm in three places, the prisoner’s family held a protest outside the prison. (A Prison Service spokesperson said that an investigation into the use of force against the prisoner, Kyrone Moore, found it was proportionate.) A few months later, Stephanie Fogo, the mother of a prisoner named Richard Burnett, learned that his elbow had been broken, allegedly by an officer. (The prison is currently investigating the claims concerning Richard Burnett. In a statement responding to these allegations, a spokesperson told me: “Our highly trained officers use force as a last resort and in the overwhelming majority of cases it is unfortunately necessary to protect themselves or others from harm. All incidents involving use of force are investigated and anyone using disproportionate force can face dismissal and police investigation.”)

Since the alleged assault on her son, Fogo has received letters from prisoners detailing their treatment inside. “I didn’t know all these things were happening until it happened to my son,” Fogo told me. “No one, not one bloody person is doing anything about it.” The letters, which Fogo shared with me, raise a consistent set of concerns: poor food, prisoners going hungry, poor mental health support, and above all, abusive officers. (Though many of these same letters acknowledge that there are decent officers, too.)

In October 2020, Peter Clarke wrote his final report as prisons inspector, warning that the challenges of recent years hadn’t disappeared. “When the immediate crisis is over, there will still be an urgent need to address the serious issues that adversely affect the safety and decency of our prisons.” Boris Johnson’s government, which campaigned on a traditional law and order ticket, have pushed for some innovation inside prisons; they’re encouraging companies to hire more ex-offenders and have advocated for internet installation inside cells. Day-to-day spending is back up significantly, largely due to more staffing. But the kind of reset Clarke recommended requires deeper consideration about what prisons actually are, and what we want them to be.

Late last year, the government published a white paper that outlined its plans. These included new facilities for prisoners dealing with drug and alcohol addiction and plans to help prisoners gain basic numeracy and literacy. If implemented, such measures may begin to address the crisis created by years of underfunding – not least chronic rates of reoffending. However, in his foreword, Dominic Raab began by trumpeting “the biggest prison building programme in more than 100 years,” and announced that the government “will provide 20,000 new prison places to protect the public through punishment and incapacitation of offenders”. The promise was to balance this punitive side of policy with targeted efforts at rehabilitating prisoners. But the latter is far more politically precarious. The slow, expensive, uncertain process of rehabilitating former prisoners is infinitely harder than building more prisons and locking more people up.

“They’re human beings,” says Denise Ireson, of the prisoners who have developed addictions, been assaulted, harmed themselves or taken their own lives. They’re somebody’s son, she says, somebody’s uncle, brother, grandson. “It’s us families that have lost our loved ones. We have to deal with this each and every day.”

Like all prisons, Nottingham gives the illusion of being severed from its city. But its connections run deep. The month Fogo found out her son had been beaten, Denise Ireson’s family gathered to mark the third anniversary of Ben’s death. As they had done for the last two years, they wrote notes to him on the side of helium balloons and released them into the sky. When the balloons floated away, Denise was left alone with her grief.

To cope, she lights candles in the memorial to Ben she has built in the corner of her flat. Three times a week, she visits Ben’s grave. When she dies, she will be buried next to him, with her epitaph etched on to the other side of the black marble headstone. Sometimes, Denise tends the grass, plucking weeds from the display she has created from artificial flowers and plastic meerkats, which Ben loved. Occasionally, she plugs in her headphones and, quietly, so she doesn’t disturb the other graves, she plays his favourite reggae song, Kingston Town. “The light seems to fade / But the moonlight lingers on / There are wonders for everyone / The stars shine so bright / But they’re fading after dawn.”

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