The prison system is in crisis, with riots, drug abuse and record levels of suicide. But what is life really like for the 85,000 prisoners in our jails?
Jessica Berens was writer-in-residence at HMP Dartmoor for three years and has the inside story. hen I accepted the role of writer-in- residence at HMP Dartmoor, I wasn’t to know that my three-year tenure would coincide with a nationwide escalation in violence, drug-taking, self-harm, suicide and homicide in prisons, the effects of which culminated, last year, in riots in four of them. In the words of Peter Clarke, the chief inspector of prisons, our jails have now become ‘unacceptably violent and dangerous places’. There was no riot in Dartmoor while I was there, but there was a suicide and a homicide that shocked every member of that secluded community, both prisoners and staff. Oliver Pascoe, 22, hanged himself in his cell in March 2015, and another inmate, Alex Cusworth, 37, was murdered in the kitchen eight months later. His assailant, William Tolcher, was serving a life sentence for bludgeoning his former girlfriend to death. Tolcher pleaded ‘not guilty’ thinking, perhaps, that he could get away with it because there was no CCTV in the kitchen. Budget cuts had meant there was no money to install it. He was convicted anyway. There are 600 men in Dartmoor who, like the rest of the 85,000-strong prison population in the UK, spend more and more time ‘banged up’ (locked in their cells) because there are not enough officers to supervise ‘association’, as evening social activities are named. Exercise sessions in the gym or out in the yard are often curtailed for the same reason. Basic security measures, such as the deployment of dogs to sniff out drugs, have been reduced to the point of uselessness. The consequence of this is a vast proliferation of narcotics on the wings. During the years of my residency, the psychoactive drug ‘spice’ became available in prisons all over the country, and Dartmoor was no exception.