by Steve Gillan
Morning Star | 25 September, 2016
FRONT-LINE prison staff have believed for some time that the prison service is in crisis.
The Prison Officers Association (POA) has taken every opportunity to raise the profile of this growing danger.
Though the message gets through to some, it seems that those in London-based ivory towers still don’t, can’t or won’t see what is blatantly obvious to everyone else. The crisis is here, it is real and without urgent action it will become critical.
The austerity measures in prisons, driven by government spending policy since 2010, have led to the loss of over 10,000 uniformed staff.
How can anyone expect to maintain a safe, decent and secure system with cuts of this magnitude, while the courts are giving ever more custodial sentences to violent and dangerous offenders?
The POA warned Chris Grayling, when he was secretary of state; we stressed the matter with Michael Gove when he took up the post. Though Gove managed to get some additional funding before he left office, it was in many ways too little, too late.
We have now met the new Justice Secretary Liz Truss and hope that she will be more appreciative of the potential catastrophe her predecessors created.
The staffing cuts have left our prisons and the offenders they care for in an increasingly vulnerable situation.
Government data clearly shows that in the last few years there has been an almost exponential increase in violence within our prisons.
These increases have been repeatedly attributed to the cuts government has made to front-line staff numbers.
One of the main reasons identified for the increases in violence is the explosion in the use of new psychoactive substances (NPS) by offenders.
The prisons and probation ombudsman says that 61 per cent of prisoners use them regularly and they are one of the leading causes of debt and therefore bullying among offenders.
The government has appeared at times to hold the view that “we have made it illegal, so that will stop the problem.” Well, we can tell them, unequivocally, it won’t.
The only way that we will tackle the use of NPS is through giving proper education to offenders on the dangers of using these substances and by disrupting the supply into our prisons. The first takes time, the second takes staff. One we have, the other we don’t.
Between 2013 and 2015, NPS have been linked to 39 deaths in custody compared with 19 in 2012-14. These deaths and the increases seen in self-harm among offenders is shocking.
These incidents, alongside the increased numbers of offenders with diagnosed mental health issues, are truly alarming.
Prisons are not a proper place to care for those with mental health problems. The capacity and resources are simply not there to help these individuals.
Another area that continues to blight the efforts to rehabilitate offenders is the government’s dogmatic policy of overcrowding.
Over 60 per cent of our prisons hold more offenders than they were designed to hold on a daily basis. In the 21st century the perpetuation of this Dickensian policy is unjustifiable.
This year alone we have seen HMP Holloway close and the announced closure of HMP Kennet, along with the loss of 350 places at HMP Haverigg, 1,300 places gone.
The government has repeatedly failed to learn from the past. Despite all investigations into serious incidents in our prisons highlighting that the crowding of prisons is a major causal factor and that plans should be put in place to end the practice, successive governments have blatantly failed to heed the warnings.
Indeed the latest plans involve an increase in the number of crowded places at the G4S operated HMP Oakwood, which will see 1,000 offenders doubled up in cells designed for one.
What is clear to the POA is that, if prisons are to deliver on what society wants of them, they cannot simply warehouse offenders for the duration of their sentence.
What our prison system needs is proper resourcing. They need, first and foremost, to be stable and secure. Without this stability and security they will continue to fail in their duty to reform and rehabilitate those give custodial sentences by the courts.
The fundamental issues of stability and security can only be delivered if prisons have the right number of staff to deal with the issues that the complex nature of prisons raises.
It is not simply a question of numbers, it is having sufficient staff who have the required abilities, the proper skill mix and who have been properly trained.
This can only be achieved if the prison service can recruit and retain staff in the numbers needed. It is clear that on the remuneration package currently on offer that they are unable to deliver.
For years now prison staff have seen repeated pay cuts recommended by the Prison Service Pay Review Body. This supposedly independent body has no ability to make meaningful recommendations on what the service needs in terms of pay and conditions due to the constraints put on its operation by the very government that appoints it.
It is now and has always lacked the independence of government needed to hold the respect and confidence of those within its remit.
Truss has said: “I am clear that safety in prisons is fundamental to the proper functioning of our justice system and a vital part of our reform plans.”
This grandiose statement is all well and good but when will government reveal its much talked about “reform plan”?
David Cameron announced, to much fanfare, the government’s intentions on reform in February this year.
We are still waiting for the government to add some detail to the hype. Let us see its plan. We’d like to see:
Its plan to properly staff our prisons.
Its plan to tackle the use of NPS and drugs.
Its plans to divert those with mental health issues away from prisons.
Its plans to help offenders with basic educational needs such as numeracy and literacy.
Its plans to end the policy of using crowded prisons.
Its plans for delivering a meaningful daily prison regime for every offender sentenced to custody.
The POA will be calling for the government to deliver on all these areas at the Speak Up For Justice Fringe meeting at the Labour Party Conference. The meeting will take place tomorrow at 12.45pm-2pm in Meeting Rooms 4&5 of the Hilton Liverpool City Centre Hotel.
Steve Gillan is general secretary of the POA.
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