Justice Committee warn prison system is in ‘appalling state of crisis’

The prison system is in an “appalling state of crisis” and the Government has no clear plan for “desperately needed change”, MPs have warned.

Safety, security and decency are all lacking in jails across the country, according to a critical report from the Commons Justice Committee.

MPs condemned the lack of a clear plan for reform and a long-term strategy to “reverse the fortunes” of the prison estate and called for detailed plans of how the Government will meet a series of pledges it has made to increase funding and the number of cells, according to the findings.

The report said: “Too often, prisons are identified as needing extra support, but their performance continues to decline.

“There is little point in identifying poor performance if the necessary resources are not then provided to drive improvement.”

Committee chairman Bob Neill said: “The prison system in England and Wales is enduring a crisis of safety and decency.

“Too often we have seen what might be called ‘policy by press notice’ without any clear or coherent vision for the future of the prison system.

“New prison places might be welcome, but they do nothing to improve the appalling condition of much of the current prison estate, nor the prospect of offering a safe environment in which to rehabilitate offenders.”

Amid estimations that reoffending costs £18 billion, Mr Neill said violence would not reduce in prisons without proper investment into rehabilitation and activities for inmates.

“At any rate, given Government’s poor track record in building prisons, we now want to see the detailed plans for the promised £2.5 billion for 10,000 more places, what they’ll look like and when they’ll be up and running,” he added.

The report also found:

  • The latest Government announcements had “refreshed concerns over the near £1 billion maintenance backlog on the appalling state of existing prison estate”.
  • A funding plan stretching across several years is “urgently required”, it said, adding: “Prisons should be safe and decent environments that rehabilitate offenders – this not currently the case.”
  • There were no guarantees that “necessary infrastructure” would be put in place to avoid overcrowding of prisons in the future.
  • It added: “The Government’s recent announcements on sentencing may over time result in a significantly increased prison population, without any guarantees that the necessary infrastructure will be put in place to avoid further overcrowding of prisons.”
  • It urged the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to move away “as soon as possible” from national contracts for management of facilities and look at smaller, localised arrangements so governors have more control and can adapt work to meet the needs of their prison.
  • There was still no clear accountability for individual prisons and whether the governor or the justice department were responsible.
  • It is taking too long to get important security equipment like body scanners into prisons.
  • The committee also reiterated its “wide-ranging concerns” about recruitment, retention of staff and the training and incentives available for them.

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This report is a scathing indictment of a political failure.

“The Government doesn’t hesitate to promise more jail time for more people, but it has no plan for how to deliver a decent, safe or effective prison system to accommodate them.

“People’s lives and public safety are at stake, and making ‘policy by press notice’ isn’t good enough.

“The people who live and work in prison deserve to be told when overcrowding will end, and dilapidated prisons finally be shut.”

Frances Crook (pictured), chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Now that we are heading into a volatile election period, it is important that all policy announcements are tempered with the use of evidence – and it starts with this vital report by the Justice Committee, which lays bare many of the problems in the prison system.”

She accused politicians of too often using plans for prisons for “personal political gain” or to come up with “superficial quick-fix answers when, clearly, a more fundamental solution is needed”.

She added: “The idea of constantly expanding the number of people in prison is simply untenable and at the root of the problem.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We know many prisons face challenges but we have been confronting those head-on by recruiting over 4,400 extra officers in the last three years.

“This Government is investing tens of millions in security and improving conditions, an extra £156 million for maintenance, £100 million to ramp up security and tackle drugs issues, and £2.5 billion to create 10,000 additional prison places.

“We also fully recognise the value of purposeful activity to reduce re-offending and cut crime, which is why we launched our Education and Employment Strategy which has led to hundreds of new businesses signing up to work with prisoners and help their rehabilitation.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) The Howard League for Penal Reform.