Yesterday’s announcement by the Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss MP, into the reform of our prison system is too little too late. Reform has been needed for years, but this Government and the previous Coalition Government dodged the much needed reforms. Instead of choosing the right path of reform they decided to revert to type and cut prison officer numbers and investment into the prison estate.
Since the Tories have been in power they have presided over a cut of 7,000 prison officers. When Labour left office we had 49,230 prison officers maintaining safety in prisons and ensuring that it produced an environment where rehabilitation could progress. As of March 2016 there are only 43,540 prison officers. The Tory cuts have undermined prison safety and seen attacks on prison officer’s increase by 41%. Delve deeper into those figures and you will see a 31% increase in serious assaults on officers. That isn’t even over 5 years, that is just within one single year; a shocking figure.
Not only are assaults dramatically increasing on prison officers but the safety of prisoners have been put at risk. Deaths in custody has reached a 10 year high for both men and women. Assaults have seen a 35% increase and self-harm incidents rose from 27,315 in March 2015 to 34,586 in March 2016. The problem has reach endemic levels. Both private and public prisons are plagued with dangerous behaviour and under resourced prison officers. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons annual report of 2015-16 reach a damning conclusion that our prisons were failing to be places where people can rehabilitate themselves and become productive members of society because of the levels of violence.
The Justice Committee, on which I sit, has produced many warnings for the Government. However, little action was taken following our reports publication. The Secretary of States announcement is a sticking plaster when drastic surgery is needed.
Before this announcement, the previous Secretary of State, Michael Gove MP, announced a trail of prisons where the Governors would have autonomy. When pressed as to what this means reply came there none. We need to know who will be held accountable for rehabilitation rates, who will be held responsible for prison safety and who will be held responsible for budgets. If this does not reduce reoffending it surely stands to reason what is the point of this change in the managerial chain of command.
We need to continue to press for community sentences instead of putting offenders into to prison for two or three week prison sentences. Labour had managed to get reoffending rates under control and we made our prisons safer. This hard fought victory is now being undermined by the Tories who do not understand how to run the prison system.
Prison is punishment. Clear and simple. But it is also a place where we can reform convicts and make them productive members of our society. This financial year alone Justice has faced cuts of £249 million, this follows a £500m reduction in the 2014/15 budget. These cuts have now demonstrated the damage they are doing to prison safety and ability to cut reoffending rates. And these so called reforms will surely demonstrate an inability to cut reoffending.