Categorized | Criminal Justice

Poisonous prisons

Poisonous prisons

The chair of the parole board and former chief inspector of prisons, Prof Nick Hardwick, said last month that violence inside jails was now at its worst ever level. He described the recent murder in Pentonville prison as “the most extreme example of the decline in safety”

The latest prison safety figures show that assaults on staff and inmates had risen 40% in the past year to 65 a day, while there are record levels of prison suicides and self-harm. Prisons are so overcrowded and cells so filthy that many have become places of “violence, squalor and idleness.”Warnings have also come from prisoners on the inside, with one inmate at London’s Pentonville telling the BBC that knives are flown in by drones and razors are melted into toothbrushes to make weapons.

But justice secretary, Liz Truss, refused to accept that prisons were in crisis while accepting that levels of violence and reoffending rates were far too high. She admitted that the prison system was under “serious and sustained pressure,” with rising rates of violence and self-harm, constant threats to prison staff and missed opportunities to reform. She wants to crack down on the “toxic cocktail of drugs, drones and mobile phones that are flooding our prisons.”

The debate about a growing crisis in the prison service has increasingly focused on staff shortages, with officer numbers having fallen from about 25,000 to 18,000 since 2010. This reduction in staff was essentially a cost cutting exercise, testimony to the ill-starred Grayling sacrifice to Osborne’s pernicious austerity programme.

When Michael Gove became lord chancellor he made a promising start, clearing up some of the mess left by Grayling, and promising reforms. He became one of the more sensational casualties of the post referendum chaos as he was cast into the political wilderness. He was replaced by Lynn Truss.

Last week Ms Truss unveiled a white paper detailing £1.3bn of investment over the next five years. The plans include recruiting an extra 2,100 prison officers, in addition to 400 new staff announced last month. They are due to be in place by the end of 2018 at a cost of £100m a year. The extra prison officers represent a 15% increase on the existing 18,000 officers but only goes some way to restore the 30% cut in numbers since 2010 when they stood at 25,000.

One of Gove’s ideas to be implemented in the reform package is the government’s “new for old” programme of closing dilapidated Victorian inner-city prisons and replacing them with 10,000 modern prison places by 2020. The first site to be earmarked for potential redevelopment under the programme is Wellingborough in Northamptonshire, which formerly housed a youth detention centre, then an adult training prison, before closing in 2012. There is also provision for five new community prisons for women.

There will be testing for drug use on entry and exit from prison and no-fly zones over prisons to stop drones dropping off drugs and contraband.

Prison governors will be given greater autonomy with more powers over education, work and health budgets, alongside new measures to hold them to account on an agreed set of standards that will include publishing prisons’ annual performance in league tables for the first time. These will include the results of the new mandatory drug-testing regime and the English and maths testing of offenders so that progress made inside particular jails can be measured.

Ms Truss said: “This will be the first time ever that the secretary of state is not just responsible for housing prisoners but is responsible for their reform. We are going to put that in primary legislation. There will be new powers for the prisons inspectorate to identify failing prisons and a new legal duty on the secretary of state to intervene in them. That is the first time that has happened.”

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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