Grayling’s “Spartan but Humane” Prisons: Rape, Vermin, Overcrowding, Violence, Idleness and Suicide.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has been a constant thorn in the flesh of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. He regards it as a left wing pressure group forever trying to frustrate his plans. There is nothing particularly left wing, however, about objecting to men being raped in gaol, the subject of the League’s latest report. According to data taken from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons “between 850 to 1,650 prisoners” could be raped or sexually assaulted each year.

It is true that the figure is vague but the main reason for that is that Mr Grayling, in stark contrast to his predecessor Ken Clarke, refused to allow prisoners to co-operate with it. Rather than discover the truth, Grayling is reported to have said bluntly: “prisoners aren’t going to have sex on my watch,” conjuring up a creepy image of the Justice Secretary slinking along the Scrubs landings, occasionally pressing a puffy eye to a Judas hole to make sure his no sex edict is not being flouted.

In early 2013 shortly after he was put in charge of prisons Grayling announced: “I want prisons to be Spartan, but humane, a place people don’t have a particular desire to come back to.”

Grayling: detailed information about how to barge in
Grayling: “No sex on my watch.”

Emulating the penal policies of Sparta would be both controversial and politically courageous: doing so humanely would be impossible. Prison was not, as far as I know, a punishment meted out to criminals in Sparta but prisoners of war were treated with an appalling brutality that would make the Justice Secretary’s Incentives and Earned Privilege Scheme seem distinctly liberal. Spartans would often throw prisoners into quarries where, if they were not instantly dashed into pieces on the rocks they soon died of cold and starvation.

They also had a robust approach to crime, but it was rather different from our own and hardly one that Mr Grayling could be expected to endorse, certainly not if he wishes to remain as MP for the highly respectable constituency of Epsom and Ewell. Spartan boys were taught the art of theft from a young age, because an ability to steal things and get away with it was considered a military virtue. If they were caught they would be flogged mercilessly: not for the theft, but for their carelessness in getting caught. This developed into the curious ritual of διαμαστίγωσις (diamastigosis) in which boys would compete to steal cheeses off an altar which was guarded by strong men armed with whips.

The bloody spectacle that ensued became a popular tourist attraction, especially when blood flowed over the altar and young men were flogged to death. The annual Gloucester Cheese Rolling festival would be our closest equivalent but, despite the fact that flogging never formed an integral part of that entertainment, it has been suspended since 2010, for Health and Safety reasons. As far as I am aware the Justice Secretary has done nothing to revive this quaint Spartan festival, although it is only fair to point out that if he had done so it is likely that he would have been vetoed, certainly by the Liberal Democrats and possibly even by some bleeding heart Conservatives.

Spartan sexual policies, on the other hand, were surprisingly liberal: probably too liberal for the somewhat puritanical Justice Minister. In a respectable family blog it would be inappropriate to go into too much detail but Spartan warriors thought nothing of using young boys for their delectation: indeed it was encouraged by the State, and there was certainly no concept of an age of consent. This would hardly seem an appropriate model for twenty-first century prison policy and nor would it sit easily with the Grayling doctrine of “no sex on my watch.”


In Mr Grayling’s New Sparta prisoners are not thrown onto rocks and nor, thankfully, do they die of starvation. Instead they die of despair. According to the Prison and Probation Ombudsman, suicide rates have increased by 64% since the Justice Secretary announced his Spartan regime.

There are now over 85,000 prisoners, over 1,000 more than at this time last year, in what Grayling likes to call his “Prison Estate.” Prisons, including High Down in his own constituency, are stuffed to overcrowding with prisoners confined to their cells for 23.5 hours a day, while new prisons are unable to open because there aren’t enough officers to staff them. While prisoner numbers soar, staff numbers have been cut by over 30% in the last three years.

Predictably enough the reports of the Chief Inspector of Prisons reveal a miserable catalogue of failures.

Pentonville: seriously overcrowded, with 1,236 inmates in cells designed to hold only 913. Almost half of inmates said they felt unsafe. Many parts of the prison … were poorly maintained and dirty – including its exercise yards. There were also vermin infestations.

High Down: “an unhappy prison for those that live and work within its confines.”

Bristol: “Prisoners complained of cockroach infestation, and some were living in unacceptable conditions in cells without windows.”

Wormwood Scrubs: “At this inspection [May 2014] we found a prison that had declined significantly in almost every respect…. We were extremely concerned about the poor care for some prisoners at risk of self-harm. It was unacceptable that repeated Prisons and Probation Ombudsman recommendations had not been implemented following a number of self-inflicted deaths.”

And so it goes on. While Mr Grayling is engaged in an absurd attempt to stamp out consensual sex, and impose “Spartan” regimes, he has nothing to say about the reality of his prisons: rape, vermin, overcrowding, violence, idleness and suicide. It is quite shocking, it is shameful and it is getting worse.

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

5 thoughts on “Grayling’s “Spartan but Humane” Prisons: Rape, Vermin, Overcrowding, Violence, Idleness and Suicide.”

  1. The logical solution to all this is to create an updated version of the cheese-stealing contest: trying not to get caught having sex while Grayling stalks the corridors…

  2. The man is clearly delusional. Only today I read these words in the Guardian
    ‘Justice secretary says he wants every prisoner who needs it to have access to the best possible mental health treatment’
    Where’s Lord Longford when you need him ?

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