On Wednesday, Labour held an Opposition Day Debate on prison safety and reform. As many of you will know, I am one of the two rapporteurs for prisons in the Justice Select Committee and a former Prisons Minister in the last Labour Government.
At the end of 2016 there didn’t seem to be a week go by without a prison riot erupting in various parts of the country. There were prison riots in HMP Swaleside, Birmingham, Lewes, Bedford, Hull and Moorlands. This came about due to the inadequacy of support from the Government to our prison officers and the system as a whole.
We have overcrowding in our prisons. Currently, over 60% of prisons are exceeding their normal accommodation rate. Overcrowded prisons prevent effective access to education and rehabilitation and impact negatively on mental health – placing the most vulnerable prisoners at risk and creating a dangerous workplace for prison officers.
Our prisons have become increasingly violent under this Government. Self-harm assaults and deaths have reached record highs not seen in decades. In the 12 months to September 2016 there were 324 deaths in prison custody (a rate of 3.8 deaths per 1,000 prisoners), an increase of 57 (21%) compared to the same period of the previous year. Added to this was the increase in self-harm. In the 12 months to June 2016 there were 36,440 reported incidents of self-harm, up by 7,509 incidents (26%) on the previous year alone. Assaults have also increased in the 12 months to June 2016. 23,775 assault incidents, an increase of 6,078 incidents from the same period in the previous year. There were: 3,134 serious assaults – an increase of 26%; 17,782 prisoner on prisoner assaults (up 32%); 2,462 serious prisoner on prisoner assaults (up 28%); 5,954 assaults on staff (up 43%) and 697 serious assaults on staff (up 20%). All these dreadful statistics represent a system crumbling under pressure.
One of the causes of these dire stats is the drastic cuts to prison officer numbers. Since 2010, there has been a reduction of 6,335 (26.3%) frontline prison officers. Not only are we in need of prison officers, but we are in need of experienced officers. We are now in the situation with experienced prisoners and inexperienced prison officers. This can only lead to more danger.
In my speech I didn’t just opine the situation in the prison system, but I wanted to put forward the Justice Committees forthcoming review into prison reform.
The Government is planning on devolving power to prison governors and we will be investigating this as a Committee. You can listen to my speech to hear some of the points the Committee will be investigating and hoping the Government will elaborate on in the near future. You can also read my speech here.