Chis Grayling was accused of ‘downplaying publicly’ the significance of the sharp increase in prison suicides over the last three years, according to the report of an influential committee of MPs out today. The Lord Chancellor had denied any link between prison staffing cuts and a sudden rise of suicides inside jails, but today – in a major report by the House of Commons’ justice committee, MPs say it is impossible other than to conclude that cuts in staff have made a ‘significant contribution to the deterioration in safety’.
‘The MoJ might be taking the matter of the sudden rise in self-inflicted deaths seriously internally, but downplaying publicly its significance, and the potential role that changes in prisons policy might be playing in it, is ill-advised as it could be construed as complacency and a lack of urgency. The Ministry told us they had looked hard for evidence of factors which could be causing an increase in suicide rates, self-harm and levels of assault in prisons. Worryingly, they had not managed to arrive at any hypothesis as to why this has taken place.
In our view it is not possible to avoid the conclusion that the confluence of estate modernisation and re-configuration, efficiency savings, staffing shortages, and changes in operational policy, including to the Incentives and Earned Privileges scheme, have made a significant contribution to the deterioration in safety.’
One of the main criticisms from MPs is what they described as a ‘very real danger of unmanageable growth’ in prison population, already at a record level. They say the population, now almost at a weighty 81,000, is one of the main reasons behind the deterioration in levels of safety, and rising numbers of complaints. ‘Staffing levels and changes to the prison regime, including the IEP (Incentives and Earned Privileges) scheme, were causative factors in the decline in safety,’ the report said, and although beyond the control of the Government, the attempts to tackle the problem made the situation worse.
‘The Government attributed operational issues and subsequent adverse outcomes to several other factors, including unexpected and extreme population pressures, increases in the use of legal highs, and a broader increase in suicide rates. We consider here the extent to which the situation can be attributed to prisons policies, or other factors beyond the Government’s control.’
The key criticism, however, was the 28% reduction in staffing numbers in publicly run prisons since 2010.
The report should be at the ‘top of the tray’ for the Justice Secretary, said Frances Crook of The Howard League for Penal Reform.
‘Prisons that leave people to rot in their cells and exacerbate existing problems with mental health or addictions are no good to anybody. The report vindicates the long-held view of the Howard League that the safety and effectiveness of prisons is being compromised by the cut in staffing numbers and a failure to address the size of the prison population.’
Frances Crook of The Howard League for Penal Reform
The MPs reckoned that a main cause behind reduced safety was the relationship between prison officers and prisoners. Their report came a day after The Howard League published a report on sex in prisons, which also examined the lreationshi between staff and prisoners – revealing officers ‘turn a blind eye’ to what was happening inside.
‘It was difficult, if not impossible, for prison staff to determine whether a relationship between prisoners was consensual or coercive and the nature of the relationship could change over time.’
Commission on Sex in Prison, The Howard League
The MoJ said reducing suicides in prison was high on the agenda but insisted there was no link between staffing levels and population to the number of self-inflicted deaths across the estate.
‘Our modernisation programme has created an estate fit for purpose, and saved the taxpayer millions of pounds,’ prison minister, Andrew Selous commented. ‘Staffing levels were agreed with both prison governors and the unions at the outset and they have done an excellent job during a period when the prison population has unpredictably risen.’
‘This government will always have enough space for those sent to us by the courts. And we will continue to maintain the safety of the estate, including with tough new measures to crackdown on new synthetic drugs which are driving much of the increase in prisoner violence,’ he concluded.
The MoJ said it is aiming to recruit 1,700 new prison officers, and a new government package of reforms would save the taxpayer £300m from 2015/2016, adding the total number of hours worked in prisons had increased from 10.6 million to 14.2 million over the past four years.
BA Journalism undergraduate (third year), writer and reporter.