Former tennis star Boris Becker got to know the splendor of the British capital and lived in a luxury villa in London. Now the 54-year-old is experiencing the downside of this world in prison.

Time seems to stand still in England’s prisons. Reading reports about the conditions there reminds one of the novels by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). In fact, many prisons still date from the 19th century. Resocialization hardly plays a role. Instead, neglect, dirt and rats are often to be found.

The German ex-tennis star Boris Becker can now get a personal impression of this sad reality. The 54-year-old three-time Wimbledon winner, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for concealing assets in his bankruptcy proceedings at the end of April and has now accepted this sentence, spent the first few weeks of his imprisonment in the Wandsworth prison, which opened in 1851 – one of the most notorious prisons.

Becker’s attorney recently dismissed rumors that Becker complained about the food or pressed an emergency button at Wandsworth. One could hardly blame him, because the conditions in English prisons have long been denounced by human rights organizations and the state supervisory authority. “The more you know about it, the greater the outrage,” Prison Reform Trust (PRT) director Peter Dawson said in an interview last year.

“Saudi Arabia’s Penal Legislation”

Too many people in too little space, too few and too inexperienced staff, violence and drugs are just some of the problems that Her Majesty’s prisons suffer from. Prison mutinies are a common sight. The number of deaths behind bars is the highest since records began. A large number of prisoners are mentally ill.

The number of prisons in England and Wales is 118 with a total capacity of around 77,700 prisoners, according to the World Prison Brief platform. Almost 80,000 people are locked up there. This corresponds to a rate of 132 per 100,000 inhabitants and is by far the best in western Europe. There are 179 prisons in Germany with a total capacity of 72,400, and around 59,000 people are in prison. The prisoner population per 100,000 population is 71.

And it’s likely to get worse: by 2026, authorities expect nearly 100,000 people to be in prison in England and Wales alone. According to the PRT, the reason for this is that the verdicts are becoming increasingly harsh – for almost all offences. England and Wales have more people sentenced to life imprisonment than Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium and Sweden combined.

Public perception is different. In a 2021 survey, three-quarters of people in England and Wales said penalties had become lighter. Even minor non-violent offenses are often punished with imprisonment. The number of judgments in which community work was ordered, however, has halved in the past ten years.

A law recently passed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government aims to further increase prison sentences for serious crimes. Johnson joked last year that under hard-line Home Secretary Priti Patel, the country had become “the Saudi Arabia of penal legislation.”

Lack of staff, lack of building fabric

In addition to overcrowding, the age of many buildings is also a problem. There are still 32 Victorian-era (1837-1901) prisons operating in England and Wales. They house 22,000 prisoners. Also still in use is Dartmoor Prison, built in 1806 for prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars.

According to reports from the HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the old walls are often infested with vermin. In 2019, an ex-convict sued correctional services for suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from having rats in his cell. According to The Guardian newspaper, the animals entered through a broken window, ran up and down walls and also over the prisoner’s bed. Sanitary facilities often do not work either. One prisoner that prison inspectors spoke to was unable to shower for seven months.

The situation is exacerbated by the lack of employees. Government austerity policies, poor pay and harsh working conditions are to blame, according to the think tank Institute for Government. In England and Wales, the number of prison staff was cut by more than a quarter between 2010 and 2017. The turnover is significant. Some prisons are also run by private service providers, but the contracts often have to be terminated due to catastrophic conditions.

The lack of staff means that many prisoners spend up to 23 hours a day in the cell because they cannot be adequately supervised. Some prefer this to the violence they are subjected to from other prisoners. “He couldn’t get out of his cell because he was afraid for his life,” the wife of a prisoner in Birmingham told the BBC in 2018. She described the prison there as a “hell hole”.

Boris Becker has now been taken to Huntercombe Prison in Nuffield, around 70 kilometers west of London. The conditions there should be comparatively good. Nevertheless, the state of English prisons should not go unnoticed.