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Prison report

Prisons in England and Wales face a ‘grave and worsening situation in their safety’ despite significant recent, welcome advances in effort and resources, according to a report by the Justice Select Committee of MPs.

Over the last five years, the Ministry of Justice and Treasury have essentially adopted a crisis management approach, despite repeated warnings from MPs and others of the consequences, the report complains.

The Urgent Notification process (by prison inspectors, leading to Birmingham Prison going back to public-sector control after the Government’s ‘step-in’ last summer) would not be necessary if the Ministry’s own oversight arrangements were working effectively, said MPs. Nevertheless, its introduction undoubtedly has had a positive impact on the targeting of resources.

The committee said it was cautiously encouraged by signs of a more proactive approach with significant investment in ten ‘challenging’ prisons. As for the ‘green shoots’ spoken of by the Prisons Minister Rory Stewart when he gave evidence to the committee in December, they are not borne out in the safety statistics, but MPs say that they ‘eagerly await them’. Their report also quoted another witness, the chief inspector of prisons Peter Clarke, who said that ‘the violence figures are going in the wrong direction, as we know. We still see far too many drugs destabilising prisons.’

On ‘green shoots’ the report added: “They are urgently necessary for those working in prisons, prisoners and their families, increasing numbers of whom are bearing the scars of years of underinvestment. We have very real concerns that support given to the ten prisons could be at the expense of others in serious need and we are concerned about the diversion of resources. All prisons should have the resources that they need to foster a safe and decent environment. The Prisons Minister has set clear aspirational targets to improve safety and we will judge him by the extent to which these are achieved.”

As for the supply of illegal and so called ‘legal highs’ to prisons, the report noted surveillance, drug detection dogs, body scanners and intelligence-led searches. The report added: “We have seen less evidence of how HM Prisons is seeking to support those using drugs or with mental health problems which may co-exist or lead to drug use.”

On violence by prisoners against prison staff and other prisoners, the report also noted contractor Serco providing patrol dogs to help officers feel safe; the introduction of body-worn cameras, and an incapacitant spray (PAVA) for use by prison officers, recently sanctioned by the Ministry of Justice at the request of the Prison Officers Association.

On prisoners having mental and physical health problems, the MPs said: “Prison is often the endpoint for people with complex histories who can present challenging behaviours in different ways, including through violence, self-harm, and suicide attempts as well as their offending behaviour … Managing a more complex and challenging population safely and effectively will undoubtedly require greater resource in terms of staffing and training.”

For the full report, Prison population 2022: planning for the future visit the Parliament website.

Other witnesses giving evidence to the committee included Jerry Petherick of the private prison contractor G4S; and Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons.


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