One warned it would take the death of a prison officer before things improve in the country’s jails.
Three inmates, at prisons across England, agreed to speak on condition of anonymity – snatched conversations on their illegally smuggled mobile phones.
The trio painted a chilling picture of a prison system in crisis, where inmates are often locked in their cells for most of the day, fuelling resentment and anger.
Jake, a young man serving time at a prison in London, said: “Some days you don’t come out… and then when you do come out, you come out for half an hour.
“You’ve got half an hour to call your people, to shower, to clean and get food, it’s mad.”
He said conditions in his jail were squalid, with prisoners often unable to leave their cells, even just to carry out basic cleaning duties.
“It’s old and it’s dirty… sometimes you see cockroaches, you see like, little baby rats. Like, in the summer, you get loads of ants. It’s just nasty man.
“A couple of weeks ago we had that heatwave. It was mad, it was proper mad… like, unbearable.”
Last Friday, thousands of prison officers across England and Wales staged a mass walkout in protest at what they said were “unprecedented levels of violence”.
They agreed to go back to work later that day after the prisons minister agreed to a series of meetings with representatives of their union, the Prison Officers’ Association.
Jake said he had little sympathy for prison officers and said most of the trouble was prisoner-on-prisoner violence, aggravated by the policy of locking up inmates in their cells.
“You’re in there, it’s hot, it’s sweaty, it’s dirty, it’s humid… and to make it worse you hear ‘we’re short of staff, we’re short of staff, we can’t let you out today.’ F*** off. I mean F*** off. It just goes on and on and on.
“Of course there’s anger. When you do get out, your time’s limited, you just feel like you’ve got the whole weight of the world on your shoulders cause you’re trying to do a thousand things in the little time that you’ve got.
“So when anyone even looks at you the wrong way, or says something, it’s gonna go off.”
The inmates know there is likely to be little public sympathy for their discomfort – but Steve, serving time in the east of England, said much of the increase in prison violence is linked to their growing frustration.
“On the average wing of 120 people, you’ll only have about 20 who’ll have full time activity. The other 100 will be locked up all day.
“When you do release them from their cell, expecting them to go back nicely and expecting them to do what they’re told, when they have so much frustration and have been locked up, is like bordering on madness.
“Why should these people? Would you?”
Prison officers say much of the violence is being fuelled by an epidemic of drug abuse, with many prisoners overdosing on the synthetic cannaboid Spice.
Dan, an inmate at a prison in the northwest of England, agreed drugs misuse was behind some of the trouble but he said many prisoners have psychological issues, which are not being addressed by prison authorities.
“Half the prison has mental health problems,” he said. “I’ve asked for a mental health counsellor for help but the things that are benefiting people, they’re getting rid of.
“Fair enough, people need to go to work and feel safe but they’re working in a prison full of people with mental health problems.
“For us to get anything we need we have to be violent. We have to get aggressive.”
All three inmates we spoke to were extremely pessimistic about the prospect of improvements anytime soon.
Steve said: “I will say this, I see a prison officer dead. A screw dead in the next 18 months.
“I honestly believe that this whole situation is going to get worse before it gets better and it’ll only turn around when a prison officer gets killed.”
“Inmates and prison officers don’t see eye to eye on much but on the likelihood of further very serious violence they are in full agreement.”
Speaking to Sky News on Wednesday, Justice Secretary David Gauke acknowledged that there was work to be done in improving the prison system and that prisoners should be treated “with humanity”.
He said: “I accept that there are things we need to do to improve our prison system – and we have already taken a number of steps.
“We’ve recruited an additional 3,500 new prison officers since October 2016, and have made job offers to an additional 2,000.
“Over the course of the past few months, we have announced additional spending to help improve security, to improve the fabric of conditions, to stop drugs getting in – these are all important measures.”