The new prison reform white paper has rightly been met with scepticismby Richard Burgon / November 7, 2016 / Leave a comment
Last week’s Prison Safety and Reform White Paper was published in the face of a crisis engulfing our prison service. I said in the Commons Chamber that it was a Conservative-created cuts crisis, although the Secretary of State presiding over it—Liz Truss—refuses to admit it.
The root cause of the prison crisis is the political decision to cut our prison service back to the bone, with almost £1 billion taken out of the National Offender Management Service since 2010. The story in our prison system since then has been one of staff cutbacks, spiralling violence and increased drug use.
Thursday’s announcement felt like a tacit admission of that, but also feels like too little, too late.
Prison safety has been in the news recently following the tragic killing of Jamal Mahmoud in HMP Pentonville on 18th October and prison officers losing control of a wing at HMP Lewes on 29th October—when just four were left on duty. And only yesterday, several hundred prisoners at HMP Bedford took over at least one wing of the prison for a number of hours.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Peter Clarke, recently described our prisons as “unacceptably violent and dangerous places.” The upsurge in violence has seen a total of 100,000 recorded assaults in prison since 2010, and in the past 12 months alone a 21 per cent increase in prison deaths, a 26 per cent increase in self-harm incidents and a 34 per cent rise in assaults. Last year, for the first time, there were over 100 self-inflicted deaths in the prison estate.
Family members of prison officers have emailed me to highlight hospitalisation of prison officers for fractured eye-sockets and broken legs as a result of assaults by prisoners. This increase in violence can be attributed to staff being increasingly overstretched and overwhelmed and having to deal with overcrowding.
It’s no wonder then, that staff morale is low. When Labour left office, there were over 24,000 prison officers. Six years later there are just 18,000. Those who have left have been the most experienced officers, leaving a smaller workforce more reliant on newly appointed staff to deal with increasing violence.
The government has said it has recruited over 3,100 prison officers since January 2015 but there has only been a net increase of 300 prison officers in that time. With prison officer pay held down under the public sector pay freeze, an average salary of just £21,000 means even Liz Truss accepts recruitment will be difficult.
Eighty of our 120 prisons are now either full, or operating over-capacity, with prisoners forced to “double” or “treble” in cells meant for fewer than they hold. My own local prison has a particularly challenging job with a reported 1161 prisoners in a building with a capacity of 669.
It is this problem of understaffing and overcrowding which is creating huge problems and resulting in reoffending rather than rehabilitation. Currently half of all released prisoners reoffend within one year of release.
But what does the White Paper offer us?
A further 2,100 prison officers on top of the 400 announced at Conservative Party Conference is the headline story. I would like to think this is a welcome admission that the slashing of 6,000 posts was an error, but the Ministry must explain why it thinks the new number is sufficient. The Justice Secretary must also square a schedule to get them in post by 2018, with the Prison Officers Association wanting action on safety in a matter of days.
The impact of other changes remains unclear and does not amount to the radical reforms the Justice Secretary trumpeted.
With the promise of new prisons but also of further closures, there is no clarity on dealing with the overcrowding issue. More extensive drug testing may affect supply, but will do little to deal with demand. Some changes around prisoner privileges may improve prison atmosphere, but are dependent on other changes. There is a confused message of increased governor autonomy alongside increased powers for the Justice Secretary to intervene. And new community prisons must deliver improvements in relation to women prisoners.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that the reaction from prison staff and the penal reform community, including the Howard League and Prison Reform Trust, has been sceptical at best.
Reducing violence and drug-use and improving education and rehabilitation remain the key tests. Despite the headlines on recruitment, fewer officers—overstretched and overwhelmed—means an increasingly unsafe regime where prisons cannot reform and rehabilitate as needed.
The reality is that after six years of Conservative cutbacks, Truss has yet to put together a convincing package that will regain the trust of prison governors and officers, and deliver a system that works for the wider community.