Prison Riots Are a Symptom of a Much Bigger Problem


The December riot in HMP Swaleside is the fifth prison riot in two months in the UK, shining a spotlight on the shortcomings of the British prison system. The riot in HMP Birmingham resulted in two wings of the prison out of use and there are tales of drugs, cell phones, and other contraband being freely available in more than one prison.

The costs of these riots are high, with prisoners needing to be relocated all over the country. Naturally, the government is eager to prevent further unrest, but with the largest riot taking place in a prison run by private company G4S, known for an array of failures including managing the security at the London Olympics, it’s hard to see a clear strategy for the Conservative party to pursue.

Several sources have pointed out under-staffing as a clear cause of the disturbances, resulting in prisoners feeling unsafe as rules are barely enforced. Prisoners feeling unsafe and drug abuse combined with overcrowded prisons inevitably lead to rises in violence and ultimately riots, and when prisons are underfunded and privatised, I struggle to find reason to blame the prisoners.

The warning signs for the failures in our prisons have been clear for some time. In April, the Independent reported on the rise in prison suicide attempts, once more citing overcrowding and staff shortages.

There are few ways prisoners can protest when their conditions are inhumane or unsafe. In prison, they don’t have the vote, every hour of their day is dictated. Their recourse when they are mistreated is limited, and the channels through which they can complain are often neglected. The circumstances which recent Department of Justice policies have created have made conditions intolerable for prisoners, and though some may argue that those who have committed crimes don’t deserve comfortable conditions, they do deserve safety and to have their human rights observed.

In September, the Prison Reform Trust gave a briefing to the Justice Committee on Prison Safety. They reported that incidents of self-harm and self-inflicted death were up by more than 25% over the last year, along with huge increases of assaults on both staff and other prisoners. Meanwhile, the number of staff has fallen by 13,000.

Regardless of your view of prison sentences as punitive or rehabilitative, no individual should be living in conditions so poor that they harm themselves. The long-term mental health impact of these conditions can’t be quantified, but it also cannot be ignored. Not to mention, with staff numbers so much lower, any attempt at providing prisoners with education and employment will fail. Combine this with potential mental health issues and it’s easy to see that any attempt to rehabilitate these suffering prisoners is going to be extremely difficult.

The circumstances these prisoners are living in are unacceptable and there are so few people fighting for their rights. In a situation that hopeless, a riot is inevitable. These people must be protected.


Politics with Social Policy student, nerd, prone to strong opinions, and enthusiastic kazoo player.

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