Moving the gaol posts

JeremyBeecham.jpgJeremy Beecham on the government’s half-hearted attempts to resolve the UK’s prison crisis

The tragic events at Pentonville Prison in which one man was killed and two seriously injured are the latest evidence that our prison system is in crisis. 22 years ago, the then Conservative Home Secretary, Michael Howard, proclaimed that “prison works”. It didn’t then, and it most certainly doesn’t now.

Our prisons are desperately overcrowded and shockingly understaffed. Report after report from successive Chief Inspectors have highlighted the problems but the position has got worse – particularly since 2010.

The number of assaults on staff has increased from 3,000 to 5,500, with serious assaults going from 300 to 646 – and all in the past three years. Overall, assaults have risen by just under 30% to 22,195 in six years. Assaults with weapons on officers and other prisoners has increased from 1,474 to 3,958, sexual assaults from 137 to 300, and self-harming by 50% in the past two years to 34,586. Deaths in custody have also risen, by 100% since 2007; including 105 suicides in the last year.

In parallel with these disturbing increases, staffing has reduced. The past four years have seen a drop in numbers from 18,500 to just over 15,000, within which are worrying large reductions in both officer and operational support grades. 

The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) appears to be complacent about staffing, proclaiming, as reported by the Prison Officer’s Association that they have no difficulty in recruiting staff when officer numbers have fallen by 24%. As a result, NOMS is only able to recruit to the reduced numbers allowed by the government’s failure to fund the staff numbers required to ensure safety. Leaving little or no capacity to achieve progress towards fulfilling its oft declared intentions to transform rehabilitation.

This staff shortage can lead to a single prison officer looking after an entire wing, and to too few of them patrolling a prison’s perimeter. Thereby facilitating the transmission of the forbidden substances which fuel violence, self-harm or illness – as the recent TV documentary about Wandsworth Prison vividly, and shockingly, illustrated.

Justice Minister Lord Keene, answering questions yesterday from Lord Ramsbotham, myself and others, referred to the recent government announcement that 400 additional prison officers will be recruited. That is simply inadequate, given the staffing cuts in recent years and the massive problems the service faces.

We must remember that in one of the largest prison populations relative to population anywhere in the developed world, the UK has a very high percentage of inmates with one or more mental health problems and a history of poor educational attainment. Addressing these issues in overcrowded institutions where cells are all too often shared and prisoners too often confined for long periods is extremely difficult.

We clearly need to reduce prison numbers, which means, amongst other things, reducing the numbers on remand – a high proportion of which do not receive a custodial sentence. But we also need to look again at sentencing policy and the ability of the system to provide proper medical care and educational opportunities. Getting rid of the large old prisons, as Michael Gove wanted to, is a good idea; but building very large modern prisons is surely not the answer. They ought to be smaller, with more and better trained staff, and wherever possible sited in reasonable proximity to the places to which their inmates are likely to return.

A civilised society should not be one in which the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick can state that the “prisons were in their worse state for 10 years”. Nor where his recently appointed successor Peter Clarke can say “the situation has got even worse” and that our prisons are “unacceptably violent and dangerous places”.

Chris Grayling’s appalling legacy as Justice Secretary has to be addressed with urgency by Lis Truss. Not just by taking forward some of Gove’s aspirations, but through a major change in the whole approach to penal policy, backed by adequate funding – an investment which will ultimately pay for itself.

Lord Jeremy Beecham is Shadow Justice Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @JeremyBeecham

Published 21st October 2016

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