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The main entrance of HM Prison Swansea,  a Category B/C men's prison, located in the Sandfields area of Swansea, Wales. The prison is operated by Her Majesty's Prison Service, and is colloquially known as 'Cox's farm', after a former governor.  (Photo credit MUST read: © Prisonimage.org)
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

Prisons in enduring crisis of safety and decency

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The Justice Committee condemns the lack of a clear reform plan and long-term strategy to reverse the fortunes of the prison system

Halloween seems a grimly appropriate date for the House of Commons Justice Committee to publish its withering report on prison governance.

The Committee, under the leadership of Chair Bob Neill MP, pulls no punches as it condemns the lack of a clear reform plan and long-term strategy to reverse the fortunes of a prison system in an “enduring crisis of safety and decency”.

Here are its main conclusions and recommendations:

  • A series of “policy by press release” announcements indicating focus on building new prison places to accommodate tougher sentences has refreshed concerns over the near £1 billion maintenance backlog on “appalling” state of existing prison estate.
  • The condition of the prison system is such that a multi-year funding settlement is urgently required. Prisons should be safe and decent environments that rehabilitate offenders – this not currently the case. The Committee is calling again for a long-term plan to improve the prison system underpinned by the funding make it work.
  • Much greater investment in purposeful activity is needed to reduce the estimated £18 billion cost of reoffending and improve safety in prisons. 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.
  • Even at a daily operational level, the Committee says current arrangements for facilities management do not work. The Ministry should move as soon as possible away from national contracts for facilities management to much smaller, localised arrangements, so that governors have more control over the service and can adapt it to meet the needs of their prison. Initiatives already in place where teams of staff and prisoners carry out minor maintenance work around the prison show what can be achieved and Government should look seriously at rolling out similar initiatives across the whole prison estate.
  • Greater autonomy for prison governors is welcome but will not drive necessary change without clear structures and mechanisms for accountability. Additional responsibilities for governors under the empowerment agenda do not match the rhetoric used by the Ministry of Justice, meaning there is still no clarity either as to what governors themselves are responsible for, or who is accountable for the performance of individual prisons.
  • Assessment of prison performance is heavily skewed towards safety and security – though even with that, it is taking too long to get important security equipment like body scanners into prisons, and these processes must be reviewed and made to work more efficiently. The commitment to additional measures on purposeful activity and time spent out of cells is welcome, but there needs to be a whole-prison approach to measuring prison performance, particularly measures relating to health and education provision.
  • Too often, prisons are identified as needing extra support, but their performance continues to decline. In the case of HMP Bristol, the Chief Inspector of Prisons invoked the urgent notification protocol despite the fact the prison was under the Ministry’s own special measures. There is little point in identifying poor performance if the necessary resources are not then provided to drive improvement. 
© Andy Aitchison

The Committee lambasted the lack of any coherent strategic plan for the prison service. It said that while building modern prisons might be desirable, this in itself did nothing to address the appalling and deteriorating condition of much of the current prison estate. (Follow this link to see how many of our operating prisons date back to Victorian times and even earlier.) 

The Committee notes the backlog of maintenance work is currently estimated at £900 million and highlights the approach of Q-Branch at HMP Leeds, where a team of staff and prisoners carries out minor maintenance work around the prison, as a model worth replicating. 

The Committee also reiterates its wide-ranging concerns about recruitment, retention, training and incentives for prison staff, from governors to officers, and makes a series of practical recommendations to begin to try to address these problems within a coherent framework for reform.

The Committee is not happy with the way in which the MoJ mainly assesses prison performance only in terms of safety and security and calls for a whole-prison approach to measuring prison performance, including measures relating to health and education provision.

The Committee is also very critical of the lack of support that the MoJ and HMPPS provide to poorly performing prisons. It welcomed the MoJ’s current review of special measures for prisons and calls for additional support to be made available.

Once again, Bob Neill signalled the Committee’s frustration with the lack of transparency and detail in the MoJ’s plans:

“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. Prisons will not become less violent without proper investment in purposeful activity for prisoners to support rehabilitation. 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.”

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

 

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